MA: Transit subject of meetings in Lexington, Burlington, Bedford

Nov. 27, 2018
For several decades the towns of Burlington, Lexington and Bedford have operated their own transit services to supplement Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority bus routes, but lately each town has been experiencing problems.

Nov. 26--For several decades the towns of Burlington, Lexington and Bedford have operated their own transit services to supplement Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority bus routes, but lately each town has been experiencing problems one town alone can't handle.

The Tri-Town Efficiency and Regionalization Transit Study was commissioned by the three towns in recent months and some solutions will be proposed at public meetings this week. It was done by a transportation planning firm called Foursquare ITP. According to the study, the people of the three towns want longer hours and more frequent service, but face similar challenges of students, elders and commuters having different needs, funding constraints and a population and employment density mostly below what's considered viable for sustainable transit in the United States.

"Lexpress is coming up on its 40th year," said Susan Barrett, the Lexington Transportation Manager. "It's changed a lot."

She said that Lexington operates two services, the bus service called Lexpress and the door-to-door taxi service called LexConnect.

According to the study, Lexpress has indirect routes and low frequency of 50 to 70 minutes, while LexConnect rides must be booked 24 hours in advance.

Barrett said that the majority of Lexpress riders were seniors and students and that some of the ridership decline was likely due to increased school bus subsidies for students and demographic turnover among seniors.

"Sixty percent of people living here now were not living here in 2000," Barrett said.

In Bedford, Assistant Town Manager Michael Rosen said that they have the Bedford Local Transit and the Bedford Dash. He said that the BLT operated until 3 p.m., while the Dash operates from 11 am to 6 p.m. Both only operated from Monday to Friday.

Alyssa Sandoval, an economic development director in Bedford, said that both the BLT and Dash were on demand services that must be booked 24 hours in advance.

"The number one thing is our traffic congestion issues," Rosen said. "We have multiple rush hours. Anything that public transit can do to help people get places without cars can help alleviate the congestion."

"Our biggest issue we have is that ridership has been declining," said John Sanchez, the director of Burlington's Department of Public Works. "In the last five years there has been a large decline in ridership."

Sanchez said Burlington's transit system was a hybrid. Most of the time it operates door-to-door, but for a few trips it has a fixed route to take people to specific destinations.

He said that the ridership was mostly people who probably could not get a driver's license and they use it to get to work. Sanchez said that they had done no research on why ridership fell, but he said that anecdotally there used to be more elderly riders, but they lost riders to door-to-door services.

While Lexington, Bedford and Burlington have MBTA service and some connections with the Lowell Regional Transportation Authority. They were outside the scope of the study, but can still provide important transit service. The study did note that better connections to Boston were desired.

"I have heard from employees in the business parks that the MBTA has an express service but only for commuter hours," Sandoval said. "Service in the middle of the day is not convenient."

"It's the sort of classic suburban transit dilemma of how effective you can be when it's so spread out," said Ethan Finlan, a transit commentator and member of TransitMatters. "There are definitely ways to make [Lexpress] more usable and coherent. The direction they should be taking -- more linear routes -- and checking if activity centers have changed."

Barrett said they were considering possible solutions. They could expand fixed route transit into Bedford and Burlington or replace both Lexpress and LexConnect with a microtransit service -- something like Uber or Lyft where vehicles are on demand.

"Have the bus routes focus on the high demand corridors," Finlan said. "There's limit on how much you can do with conventional bus service."

He added that instead of choosing one microtransit service, towns could look into allowing multiple systems to compete.

There were a number of issues that affect ridership and the viability of transit service that Barrett said were outside the scope of the study, like land use policies and whether or not the town should have bike lanes, bus lanes or other traffic calming measures. She added that some older people occasionally called her office to advocate for bus service on their streets because they have no sidewalks and so it's difficult for them to get to bus stops.

She said that they were looking at the Crosstown Connect transportation management association in Acton, Boxborough, Concord, Littleton, Maynard, Sudbury and Westford for inspiration. According to the Crosstown Connect website, they help people form carpools, encourage active transportation like biking and operate shuttles to get people to and from commuter rail or office parks and paratransit. They also run a traditional fixed route bus service call Cross Acton Transit.

"Some ideas for system changes will be presented to the public," Barrett said. "You can't design a system for the public if they can't use it."

Lexington's transit recommendations will be made at two meetings Nov. 29, one at the Lexington Community Center at 2 p.m. and one at Cary Hall in Lexington at 7 p.m. Burlington's will be presented Nov. 27 at Grand View Farm at 6 p.m. Sanchez said. Bedford's will be Nov. 26 at Bedford Town Hall at noon and 7 p.m.

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