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Residents Speak Out: MBTA Plan Is Bad For Needham

Commuter Rail and bus service are essential to the town's ability to attract businesses and home buyers, individuals said at a public hearing Monday night

Needham residents and town officials spoke out Monday night against the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s plan to cut service and raise fees, saying access to Boston was one of the things that attracted businesses and homebuyers to Needham.

About 35 people attended the Needham Transportation Committee's public hearing on the MBTA proposals, held Feb. 27 at . A panel of speakers including NTC members Richard Creem, Duncan Allen, Linda Hoard and Stephen McKnight, State Sen. Richard Ross, State Rep. Denise Garlick and MBTA Advisory Board Executive Director Paul Regan provided background on the issue and answered questions from the community.

The MBTA is facing a $161 million deficit in fiscal year 2013, and Massachusetts Department of Transportation officials have offered two scenarios that could help fill the gap this year, although they have said the changes would not solve the problem in the long term.

In the first scenario, overall public transit fares would increase by about 43 percent; in the second, fares would increase by about 35 percent across the board. In both cases, service for Commuter Rail, bus, light rail, ferry and THE RIDE would be reduced.

What does it mean for Needham?

Allen, an NTS member and transportation engineer, offered a slide presentation Monday that looked specifically at the impact to Needham, a town served by four Commuter Rail stations and a bus line (Route 59).

In the first scenario, actual fare increases for Needham customers, based on past use, would increase by about 46 percent. For the Commuter Rail’s Needham Line, which reaches Boston in 35-40 minutes from Needham Center, the last two weekday trains each way would be eliminated, as would all Saturday service. The Needham Line already does not offer Sunday service. In addition, the Route 59 bus, which reaches Boston in 75-80 minutes, with a connection to the Green Line at Newton Highlands, would see fares increase by about 40 percent—$1.25 to $1.75—and have all Sunday service (about eight weekly trips each way) eliminated.

Under the second scenario, Commuter Rail fares would increase for the average Needham rider by about 39 percent and the last two weekday trains as well as all Saturday service would be cut. Route 59 bus service would be completely eliminated—a total of 142 weekly trips each way—and towns that still have bus service would see a 20 percent fare increase, Allen said.

A majority of Needham riders use the Commuter Rail to get to work in Boston, traveling during peak hours, and account for about 1.8 million rides per year, according to Allen’s estimates. But a large number also uses the rail during non-peak hours—traveling into the city to see a show, attend a game or conduct other business. Allen estimated Needham ridership was at just under 407,000 rides per year for non-commuters.

He estimated that local ridership would drop by 14-16 percent for commuters and by 35-38 percent for non-commuters if either scenario were to be adopted.

Bad for Needham

Dropping riders seems to go against the commonwealth’s overall goals, residents said during the public comment portion of the meeting.

“I think everyone agrees that we want to encourage people to take public transportation, that it has larger environmental benefits that really benefit everyone and is helping Massachusetts meet its goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020,” said Greendale Avenue resident Eleanor Rosellini. “I think everyone would also agree that the current plan is going to reduce ridership, so it seems to me like there’s a logical disconnect here. We are trying to encourage behavior, and we are doing something that is discouraging that behavior.”

Rosellini said she felt the state should be “more creative” in coming up with solutions to fill the budget gap and suggested that people who drive cars in and out of the city also be looked at as beneficiaries of public transportation, as there are less vehicles on the roads when more people commute.

“Maybe we need to increase the tolls on the toll ways within the [Route] 128 belt. Maybe there should be a tax on parking; maybe there should be a tax on airline tickets,” she said.

Country Way resident Fred Surr said he had moved to Needham 17 years ago largely because he could walk to the Commuter Rail and get to his office in Boston. He said reducing service would have a long-term effect on the economy of the greater Boston area, making it less attractive to residents.

“I think that the cost to maintain a world-class mass transit system in this city is a drop in the bucket compared to the economic calamity that we could face … if we let this go,” he said.

Jeanne McKnight, a May Street resident and member of the Needham Planning Board, said that many professionals have to stay late at work and that cutting Commuter Rail service short would hamper their ability to get in and out of the city.

“When you have a deadline, you’ve got to be there till 10:30; you’ve got to get that 10:30 train. I don’t understand why the businesses in Boston aren’t really outraged by this,” she said.

Even non-commuters rely heavily on the evening and weekend service, McKnight said, adding that she and her husband Stephen—a member of the NTC—use the Commuter Rail about once a week to attend events or enjoy a night out in Boston.

“We have a city that has a wonderful nightlife, that has wonderful restaurants, and the people who live in the suburbs enjoy that very much. Having a train to take us home late at night so that we can enjoy that is so important to us,” she said.

Needham Economic Development Director Devra Bailin said that the town had struggled to attract businesses to Needham and that further reducing public transit would not help in that goal.

“The commonwealth has for many years been pressing for sustainable development, and it is impossible to have sustainable development—economic or otherwise—without mass transit,” she said.

McKnight also noted that town officials had spent time making the downtown area friendly to “transit-oriented development” by adding mixed use zoning to allow residential uses to blend with commercial uses and add vibrancy to Needham Center.

“How can you have transit-oriented development if the last train out of Boston is at 9:15 p.m.?” she said. “This is just something unbearable for this town.”

A creative approach

In giving background on the MBTA and MassDOT’s fiscal problems, Regan said that the issue had not developed overnight and that both entities had made many efforts over the years to cut costs and address the budget gap.

“They have acted,” he said. “But the way the MBTA is funded is fundamentally flawed.”

Regan pointed out that the sales tax contribution expected to help cover public transit costs had risen by barely 1 percent over the past decade instead of steadily growing as projected. He said the MBTA’s problems amounted essentially to “bad timing, bad luck and too much debt.”

After attending about 10 meetings like the one held in Needham on Monday, Regan said he believed the MBTA, legislators and other officials had heard people “loud and clear.”

“The outcry has been tremendous,” he said. “I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve never seen a negative reaction like this.”

The MBTA Advisory Board, which provides public oversight and technical assistance for the MBTA, has been directed to find alternatives to the two proposed scenarios that have received so much opposition. Regan said the board had come up with a plan that would increase fares by about 25 percent and result in no service cuts.

The plan also would shift the cost of operating the Silver Line, which mainly serves Logan Airport, onto the Massachusetts Port Authority and shift other transportation costs to other agencies that seem appropriate.

The Advisory Board has also recommended changes that could both close the gap this fiscal year and help ensure the MBTA is not in this situation again year after year: adding a 50 cent surcharge onto tickets for Boston sporting events and major concerts; reaching out to hospitals and universities to see about adding a surcharge to regular fees collected, such as the cost of a student ID; and instituting small fare increases more regularly so that riders aren’t shocked by a sudden leap in rates every five years or so.

“What I’ve heard is that the MBTA heard the public loud and clear. They’ve done some of the preliminary studies to look at a third alternative,” Regan said.

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