There is good news, and some not so good news for people waiting for a public shuttle bus in Watertown, the Town Council’s Economic Development and Planning subcommittee learned Tuesday night.
The Watertown Transportation Management Association (TMA) is close to creating what will be known as the Watertown Connector, which will serve Arsenal Street and other parts of the Eastside of town. However, at first, the shuttles will only be available for people who work for businesses or live in apartment complexes that are part of the TMA.
The TMA is made up mostly of companies and projects required by their building permits to contribute to the TMA (and in most cases the shuttle), some who have joined voluntarily, plus the Town of Watertown.
The shuttles would be an expansion of the current Athenahealth shuttle system, said Bridger McGaw of Athenahealth who also serves as president of the Watertown TMA.
Athena shuttles currently go to Harvard Square, South Boston, Back Bay, North Station and the North End. The planning for adding new riders will be done cautiously.
“It is very complex,” McGaw said. “It is never as simple as just adding a stop, or saying why not just add a bus.”
Athena has data on where its employees live and how they get to work, which drives the shuttle routes. They also do surveys, but sometimes the information does not bare out in reality, McGaw said. The company, for instance, has a lot of people who live along the Fitchburg Line of the Commuter Rail, which stops at Waverley in Belmont. Athena ran a shuttle there but only one person used it, and not every day.
McGaw was not sure when the Watertown Connector would start or where it would go.
The question of if and when the general public would be able to ride the shuttle remains up in the air. Steve Magoon, assistant town manager and director of Community Development and Planning, said adding public riders opens some other questions. He said the Town would have to contribute its share toward running the shuttle, or people would have to buy passes. Also, Magoon said, it might change the calculations for other businesses or residential complexes.
“If it is available to the public, what is the incentive for a business to join the TMA?” Magoon said. “If the public can get on, what is a reasonable amount to contribute? And, if they sell passes what is a reasonable amount to charge?”
Aaron Dushku, a former Town Councilor and current member of the Watertown Transportation Task Force citizens group, tried to be positive, but noted the amount of time people have waited for a shuttle.
“The Connector sounds very exciting,” Dushku said. “We hoped it would happen when Athena was granted a building permit in 2016. In 2016, the Planning Board and said they would contribute funds to the TMA, including shuttle service.”
A number of people at the meeting said they hoped to see a plan or something in writing showing what they plan was for the shuttle, including a budget and a timeline.
“We’ve been doing this for a long time, some of us for three or four years. We are frustrated and upset,” said Town Councilor Tony Palomba. “I don’t see anything on paper about how this is working.”
The effort to start a shuttle started officially in 2016, with requests for one starting even earlier. There have been discussions of having a pilot shuttle on Arsenal Street, and more recently on Pleasant Street, but none have become a reality.
Resident Mark Peterson said he believes having something in writing would help the public keep track of what’s going on with the shuttle.
“It’s hard to evaluate if you don’t have a plan or don’t have a timetable, so I have to believe things are not going well,” Peterson said.
Councilor Ken Woodland said he believed progress was being made on the shuttle, and the report at the meeting served as a plan.
Councilor Lisa Feltner suggested the subcommittee request a one-page report from the TMA about the shuttle. Magoon noted that the TMA is a non-profit group that is not under the authority of the Town Council or the Town of Watertown, so a request can be made but they cannot be required to provide a summary.
Pleasant Street Jean Trubek said she would have loved to have taken a shuttle to Tuesday night’s meeting, but she had to drive. She suspects others may feel the same way about traveling on Pleasant Street.
“Based on the amount of traffic, a lot of people travel on the road,” Trubek said. “They seem to want to use their own vehicles but sometimes they do that because there is not another choice.”
Magoon said the Pleasant Street pilot discussed last year did not get off the ground because, right now, there is only one project completed that has a requirement to be a part of a shuttle. While others on Pleasant Street are being built, they will not be required to contribute until the construction is complete and the projects are occupied.
Councilor Ken Woodland said there have been discussions with Waltham and Newton about having them join a shuttle down Pleasant Street, and he said Waltham has taken the first steps toward joining and Newton is close to doing so.
Dushku said hopes the Town Council will start thinking about what happens if this effort, too, does not take root.
“The Council needs to have a discussion, if Plan A doesn’t work, what is Plan B?” said Dushku, adding that if requirements are not realistic, maybe the town should come up with more realistic ones.