Post-pandemic behaviors may dictate new transportation options

Boston Statehouse
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BOSTON (SHNS) – As transportation providers look ahead to post-pandemic life, they should plan for services that cater to both new styles of commute and to riders beyond the typical work routes and hours, speakers said during a panel Monday.

With an Aug. 1 lift of the COVID-19 business restrictions likely to bring more people back to their workplaces during the summer and fall and with state government, municipalities and regional transit agencies preparing for an influx of federal funding, the Alliance for Business Leadership hosted a virtual discussion to explore what’s next for regional transit.

“Not to be dramatic, but we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity in front of us,” Sen. Eric Lesser said. “Probably not seen since Joe Moakley and Tip O’Neill and Mike Dukakis and Fred Salvucci teamed up with Ronald Reagan to fund the Big Dig have we seen a similar level of potential federal investment in infrastructure in the state. It’s going to be on MassDOT, frankly, to make sure that they’re making the most of that and that the Legislature is providing the oversight necessary to make sure that those funds get to where they can have the biggest impact.”

Participants, from different parts of the state, touched on a need to connect communities not just with Boston but with their neighboring cities and towns. And they noted that different regions face different dynamics.

After Monica Tibbits-Nutt, the executive director of the 128 Business Council, mentioned that her council’s privately-funded, publicly available shuttle service is an amenity that can help draw workers to an area with more jobs than people, Lesser said his Western Massachusetts district has the opposite situation — more people than jobs.

“That’s a challenge of transportation, right,” the Longmeadow Democrat said. “The more connectivity we can create between these different communities, the more opportunity we’re going to create.”

In Salem, which is not part of a regional transit authority, Mayor Kim Driscoll said commuter rail and ferry service provide options for people to get to Boston, but it’s “not as easy” for people who need to “get to Danvers or Beverly, right next door.”

A proponent of both high-speed rail service linking the western part of the state to Boston and of regional ballot initiatives that would let communities group together to assess levies to fund transportation projects, Lesser said he thinks the emergence of hybrid work models will result in more people commuting longer distances, but fewer days a week.

Someone who lives in Springfield or Palmer might not be willing to trek into Boston every day, Lesser said, but that commute could feel more workable if they only had to do it a day or two a week, and could field Zoom calls from the train.

Driscoll said commuter rail traffic from her North Shore city into Boston has diminished during the pandemic, and while that traffic is expected to eventually return, “the expectation is it’s going to look different and we’re all going to need to respond to that.” Any adjustments will also have to serve the tourists who take trains and boats into Salem, she said.

The city launched its “Salem Skipper” ride-hail service in December, offering $2 rides by mobile app within the city, with discounts for students, seniors and passengers with disabilities. Its users, Driscoll said, include people going to the hospital, to shopping districts and high school students traveling to their part-time jobs.

Driscoll said the service has been used for more than 1,000 rides, and 30 percent have been shared rides. She said the city is also launching a Community Carshare program, which rather than focusing on the downtown and tourist spots will make vehicles available in neighborhoods and near subsidized housing complexes.

“Those investments are dollars that we’ve had to invest as a community,” she said. “Some of that’s coming from cannabis retail, some of that’s coming from sponsorships, but seeing that as an investment the same way we invest in roadway projects is a culture shift.”

Sujatha Krishnan of the Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Commission said that transit should be marketed to everyone, not just people who don’t own cars. She also suggested the state could step in to help link regional transit authorities to each other, referencing as possible models both the Logan Express airport bus service and the Department of Transportation’s highway district offices.

Tibbits-Nutt, who is also vice chair of the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, said that communities are more open to the idea of working together to combine services in light of the funding constraints arising from the COVID-19 crisis.

While its ridership has been down, the 128 Business Council conducted research that showed pockets of non-English-speaking and senior populations its services might be able to reach, she said.

“COVID has really highlighted a lot of the populations that we didn’t normally think about, I think especially with senior transportation,” Tibbits-Nutt said.

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