Buses and bikes envisioned for unused track

Corridor would ease region’s traffic, planning agency says

By Matt Gunderson
Globe Correspondent / June 3, 2010

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In an effort to ease rush hour traffic and overcrowded commuter rail parking lots, regional planners are looking into the possibility of building a side-by-side bus corridor and bike trail along a 28-mile portion of an unused rail right of way that stretches from Route 128 in Waltham to Interstate 495 in Berlin.

The so-called Mass. Central Connector could serve Berlin, Hudson, Sudbury, Waltham, Wayland, and Weston. Buses would run on a concrete strip while bicyclists would use a gravel path next to it.

The idea is still in its beginning stages but 13 area communities under the auspices of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council have authorized the council to spend money to develop a feasibility study on the connector, which would be the first of its kind in Massachusetts. The study is part of an overall look at transportation options in the Boston suburbs.

Supporters of the connector say it would cost less and provide more flexibility than light rail. It would also help leverage federal transportation dollars. Combining bus and bicycle transportation options would be beneficial to both bus riders and bicyclists, they say. The connector could be linked to the MBTA’s Fitchburg commuter rail line and to other bike trails in the region.

Planners see the possibility that the connector would serve not only the communities along the route but also nearby towns like Bolton, Marlborough, and Stow.

But the proposal probably would face resistance from some neighbors of the right of way who might object to buses whizzing along their properties. Environmental concerns, including the delicate nature of wetlands along the route, may also be an issue.

The right of way is owned by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and is already under consideration by the state as a bicycle trail.

Last month, at the urging of local leaders, the planning council began sending out surveys to gauge public opinion on the bus and bike project, said Eric Bourassa, transportation manager for the regional planning agency. The council has been hosting presentations to explain the connector at Town Halls and community centers. The cost of the project is still unknown, he said.

Bourassa said the council’s pursuit of the bus transit idea is driven by strong interest among planning officials and legislators in the idea of creating fast transit connections between the suburbs, the Route 128 corridor, and Boston. State Representative Kate Hogan, a Stow Democrat, has been key in moving the feasibility study forward, he said.

“The impetus for this is that some of us began to ask: If we are doing a rail trail, then why not do a bus way?’’ Bourassa said.

Bus transit service — already in place in other areas of the country but usually done in high-density metropolitan areas — has distinct advantages over a conventional public transit system, Bourassa said.

“It’s both cheaper and more flexible’’ than a rail line, he said.

For example, if there is bridge work, for example, the bus can simply take an alternative route, which a train cannot do, he said.

Such a project could face some hurdles, however. Rail trails have been historically irksome endeavors, often facing opposition from neighbors who see trail users as a potential nuisance. Some towns, such as Stow and Maynard, have struggled with creating rail-trail paths because property owners were unwilling to allow easements across their properties.

The easement issue won’t be a concern with the 28-mile connector, however, since the entire corridor is owned by the MBTA, said Rachel Szakmary, transportation intern at the Metropolitan Planning Council. But concerns about environmental intrusions could be a source of contention, she said. In Sudbury, residents and officials have already expressed reluctance about the impact on wetlands falling within the rail trail area, she said.

The notion of a bus whizzing past people’s yards has also ignited concern in Wayland, said Sarkis Sarkisian, the town’s planner. The town’s rail trail is home to a network of scenic nature trails that interlace and crisscross with the vacant rail bed; the idea of an asphalt bus lane running through the area seems out of character to some. Also, there are questions about how frequent a bus would stop along the trail, he said. But the town hasn’t held any formal discussions on the issue, so any conclusions about public support either for or against in Wayland would be premature, Sarkisian added.

“There are a lot of questions,’’ said Sarkisian. “Is this really needed? Is it really going to provide the type of service that’’ the Metropolitan Area Council “is looking for?’’

In Bolton, Town Planner Jennifer Atwood Burney said she has received a few e-mails in response to the survey of the project, recently posted on the town’s website. So far, the responses to the combined bus and bike trail have been positive, she said. Over the summer, town officials will be hosting workshops to weigh public opinion on the trail proposal, she said.

“I think it might be something the public here will support,’’ said Burney. “But it’s still very new. . . We are at the exploratory phase.’’

Gaining widespread public support is only half of the equation, said Bourassa. The project may also get derailed by the logistics of paving 28 miles of rail bed. One pressing concern his agency has is whether there is enough room in the right of way for a bus lane, said Bourassa.

But, so far at least, the majority of survey respondents have been supportive of the idea, Szakmary said.

“People will utilize it if you put it there,’’ said Szakmary. “It’s sort of like: If you build it, they will come.’’

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