New Transportation Committee Looking at Improving Bus Service in Town

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Charlie Breitrose

An MBTA bus in Watertown.

An MBTA bus in Watertown.

Charlie Breitrose

An MBTA bus in Watertown.

Ways to improve MBTA service in Watertown was one of the top issued discussed during the inaugural meeting of the Town Council’s Ad Hoc Committee on Transportation last week. 

The Council has been focused on the issue for the past few years, and it became such a thorn for regular users that a citizen group – the Watertown Public Transit Task Force – formed to advocate for improvements.

Some headway was made in 2014 when MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott came to visit town to see the problems facing Watertown’s T users. A change in governors and a historically bad winter that gridlocked the MBTA meant that Scott was out and Watertown lost its connections in the state’s transportation agency.

“She’s gone. A lot of people have changed. It is probably time to reconnect with (transportation officials),” said State Rep. Jonathan Hecht at the meeting.

The problems are still there two years later, including full buses, and long waits for buses only to see two go by right after another (see a study of the MBTA’s on-time performance put together by Watertown resident David Sprogis).

Along with the 71 and 73 buses, the 70 and 70A buses are a focus of the Ad Hoc Committee on Transportation. That route serves the Arsenal Street corridor, one of the fastest growing areas in town, and the state.

“The amount of development on Arsenal Street and in Brighton is extraordinary,” said Councilor Vincent Piccirilli, who said the transportation needs to be designed for the future of this area.

Watertown residents will have a chance to weigh in on what they would like to see in terms of public transportation on Arsenal Street next week at a meeting hosted by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation focusing on the Arsenal Street Corridor. The meeting is on Wednesday, Feb. 24 from 6-8 p.m. at the Watertown Middle School Auditorium.

The buses often bunch up on the route, and one of the reasons cited is the length of the trip – from Central Square in Cambridge to past Waltham Center. The 70A heads north from Waltham Center to the area of Trapelo Road. One suggestion has been splitting off the extra loop the 70A goes on into a separate route.

Hecht said this is possible, but is not a decision that can be made overnight.

“The MBTA would have to have a public process and go talk to people in Waltham,” Hecht said.

A road improvement in Cambridge is expected to speed up the 71 and 73 buses. The intersection of Mt. Auburn Street and Fresh Pond Parkway will be studied soon, Hecht said. That spot ties up in commute times, slowing bus traffic along with it.

The process began in 2014, but the change in administrations slowed things, according to Hecht. This month, the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) awarded the contract to study the area and develop ways to improve the intersection. The study is expected to take a year. (See more details on State Sen. Will Brownsberger’s website).

The Committee also wanted to see if the speed of the 71 and 73 could be improved by having fares collected before the bus leaves Harvard Station, rather than when riders get off the bus. This can take some time during rush hour.

Councilor Aaron Dushku said he also wants to see more places to recharge Charlie Cards and even pay fares, including in Watertown Square where the 71 turns around, and other spots along the way.

The committee voted 2-0 to recommend the Town Council send a letter to the MBTA Councilor asking for fare collection machines at Harvard Station and potentially other locations. Tony Palomba had to leave before the vote.

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