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ACTON

New shuttle service to aid commuters

By Jennifer Fenn Lefferts
Globe Correspondent / April 8, 2010

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Commuters struggling to find parking at the South Acton train station or teenagers looking for a ride home from after-school activities will get some relief starting this spring.

Acton is preparing to launch a shuttle service that will offer residents more opportunity to take public transportation.

“Initially our plan won’t cover everybody’s needs, but the idea is to get a start and find out exactly what those needs are,’’ said Selectwoman Lauren Rosenzweig.

One component of the service is designed to ease parking congestion at the commuter rail station, which is typically full by 7:15 a.m. each day, said Rosenzweig. The town will provide a shuttle that will take commuters from satellite parking lots to and from the train station. The station draws commuters from surrounding communities as well. Officials in Boxborough and Stow said they are keeping an eye on how the shuttle service works to see whether it’s worth duplicating.

In addition, the town will provide rides upon request for residents needing a lift during certain hours, whether it’s to work, a doctor’s appointment, a friend’s house, the library, the grocery store or anywhere in between, said Franny Osman, a member of the town’s Transportation Advisory Committee. It will be similar to the van service available to senior citizens and disabled residents, but limited to several hours in the morning and in the late afternoon.

It’s unclear when the new service will start, Osman said, but it should be in place this spring.

Last week, the town received the go-ahead from the state to implement the program, which is largely funded by a federal grant to reduce road congestion and improve air quality, Osman said.

The town’s next steps will be to hire a transportation coordinator, identify lots where commuters can park, and hire a vendor to provide the service, Osman said.

In January 2005, the local United Way organization hosted a forum about local transportation needs and the town responded by forming a committee to look at what could be done to address them. The group hired a consultant and applied for the grant last spring. The town was awarded the grant in June and has been working since then to put the pieces in place, Osman said, with the program expected to cost about $162,000 to run.

The three-year grant will provide 80 percent of the funding for the first year; 70 percent the second; and 60 percent the third. The town is on its own to fund the program after that unless new grants become available, Osman said.

The amount not covered by the grant will be covered by town funds, fares, and donations. Riders will be charged between $1 and $3, Osman said.

The key to the success of the program is getting the word out that it’s available, Osman said. She said it also has to be flexible, frequent, and reliable so passengers know they can depend on it.

“People are hard-pressed to leave their cars,’’ she said.

Rosenzweig said the town has some flexibility to adjust the service if rider demand dictates different hours. She said the on-demand component is a pilot program to get a sense of what the needs are and when. The ultimate goal, she said, is to have a fixed-route service throughout Acton and nearby communities.

“Our goal is to come up with a multitown, multipronged approach to get more people on public transportation,’’ she said.

The commuter lot’s shuttle service will run on a schedule based on train arrival and departure times, following a loop between the parking lots and the station.

In October, the committee started talking with other communities to see whether there was interest in a regional approach to the commuter rail parking congestion, which can discourage area residents from using the train.

Stow Selectman Stephen Dungan said officials have long talked about how to make it easier for commuters to get to the train station but hadn’t considered the shuttle idea. He said it may be worth considering if it works well in Acton.

“Parking has been an issue there for quite some time,’’ he said. “I think there’s some opportunity for satellite parking in Stow. It’s an opportunity we need to explore further.’’

Boxborough Selectman Frank Powers said he’d like to explore whether the Acton service could be extended for residents just over the town line and take them to the train station. If not, Boxborough may look into starting its own shuttle service if there’s an interest among commuters.

“The primary reason is the lack of parking in Acton,’’ Powers said.

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.

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