Watertown was dealt a blow with the approval of the referendum to prevent the gas tax from changing with the consumer price index. We in Watertown will suffer as a result because public transit will suffer: the MBTA won’t have a reliable source of funding even to keep pace with inflation, just at the moment when we all need better T service more than ever. But we can do things as a community that will actually improve our transportation future.
In Watertown, we experience daily that the MBTA is overstretched and underfunded, that traffic congestion is overwhelming, and infrastructure is outdated. Service on the T’s Watertown bus lines was never stellar, but it has deteriorated. There are too few buses, too much overcrowding, and not enough dependability. It’s like the joke in the movie “Annie Hall”: the food is lousy and the portions are too small. One prime result is more people get into cars.
And perversely, even before the gas tax defeat, things were getting worse because of Watertown’s new popularity as a place to live and work. We’ve added hundreds of new residents along Pleasant Street and are about to add hundreds more on Arsenal. New employees will be added by Athenahealth and in repurposed commercial buildings around town. We are, or very soon will be, like the places Yogi Berra didn’t like: nobody goes there anymore because it’s too crowded.
Yes, we need to support those elected officials who support better funding for transit, and yes, we need to keep the pressure on the T to improve the quality and quantity of T service in Watertown. But we also need to take matters into our own hands by bringing together businesses, the Town and the public to help ourselves to provide more transit in addition to the T. What I’m principally talking about is creating new transit services through the public-private partnerships known as Transit Management Associations (TMAs). Successful local examples of these buses include Athenahealth’s shuttle between their campus and Harvard Square, and Charles River TMA’s EZRide shuttle in the Kendall Square area. The basic idea is for a group of businesses and/or big multi-family residential property owners to get together, sometimes with government support, to make it easier for their employees, customers and tenants to get between the sponsors’ base and mass transit nodes like T subway and commuter rail stations. These buses also sometimes create new cross-town connections that old T bus routes haven’t served. TMAs grow where there’s a transit need that isn’t being met by the T.
Where do we need TMA service in Watertown and what are the opportunities? The obvious places are where the most development has recently happened and where more is on the way: the Pleasant Street and Arsenal Street corridors and Grove Street. It’s foreseeable that Coolidge Ave., California Street and Watertown Square will be growth spots in the not too distant future. The target mass transit nodes include the T stations at Harvard and Central Squares and the commuter rail stops at Waverley, West Newton, and the coming New Balance-Boston Landing and West Station stops. Watertown could be the place where a bus shuttle connects the South Station lines through West Newton and Boston Landing with the North Station line at Waverley (perhaps through Coolidge Square). Let’s keep in mind that these lines go not only downtown but also west to Route 128. New mobile technologies like those used by Uber and Bridj may also pay a role.
What are the challenges and obstacles? The biggest challenge is getting the prime actors in the private sector and in government to cooperate among themselves and each other, starting now. There are legitimate issues to be negotiated. We the public and our government need to be willing to provide the necessary financial and regulatory support to make sure TMA services are available and affordable to more people than merely the “new economy” elites. Services need to be based on data and intelligent planning, not political clout or entrenched nostalgic thinking that is more about what Watertown has been than what it is now and what it is becoming. The real estate market and demographic trends are inexorably forcing Watertown to become denser. The way out of Watertown’s worsening transportation gridlock and the way to create a better quality of life while growing denser is one and the same: more and better public transit. Reliance on the MBTA is necessary but will only get us so far. If — alongside constant pressure on the T — well planned and well executed TMA shuttle services become a top priority for our Town government, citizen advocacy groups and business leaders, we can look forward to a future in which transit is convenient, affordable, dependable and the preferred choice for getting into, out of and around Watertown.