Some Quick Easy Fixes

Well, it looks like the doomsday threats are coming back, and this time on top of the threats of killing weekend commuter rail are the threats of ending all bus service after 11:00 PM and cutting 30 bus routes. Here are some simple fixes that the MBTA should consider.

1: MassDOT merged everyone together into a bickering blended family. They should own up to their Big Dig debt.
As much as the crowd outside of 495 will claim that they should not pay for the debt of the Big Dig because it’s solely inside Boston, truth is that it is a utility for the entire Commonwealth and beyond. The Big Dig benefits just as much benefits those from Salisbury to Sheffield to Sandwich as it does for those in Southie and Somerville with improved vehicular capacity through town, improved access to Logan, and more.  When the Commonwealth merged everyone under the MassDOT umbrella, they should have demerged the Big Dig debt which the Cellucci Administration forced upon the MBTA for something they really did not contribute to. One umbrella, one debt.

2: Merge some lesser bus routes into singular routes.
Several years back when the Port Authority in Pittsburgh had their own Doomsday cuts, they ended up merging several routes which shared a common terminal into singular routes to help boost efficiency and maintain as much service as possible. I was going to suggest these in a proposal post but here are a few which could be done.

  • Merging the 62 and 76 full-time as the current 62/76 operates on Saturdays.
  • Combining either the 70 or 70A with the 91, running straight through Central between Waltham and Sullivan.
  • At least on middays and weekends, merging the 108 with the local portion of the 426 (which would help West Lynn, East Saugus, and northeastern Revere as the Blue Line will  soon be an eunuch).
  • The 354 is extended over the local portion of the 352 after rush hours. As much as it’d be bad for Burlington commuters outside of 95/128, making this the core route would not be  bad thing.
  • Merge the 131 and the northern/eastern portion of the 430 while terminating the 430 at Square One Mall. This would not only add an elusive bus connection between Saugus and Melrose, but would also redirect the 430’s resources where it’s needed.

(Everyone, join in and leave your suggestions in the comments!)

3: Make pass prices resemble something resembling reality.
Right now a weekly pass ($18) is only 1.6 times the cost of a one-day pass ($11) and is equal to nine rail rides paid via CharlieCard. I understand the one-day pass is a bit of a tourist tax but seriously the weekly pass could be raised to around $24 and still be seen as a bargain. Similarly, $70 for a monthly pass is still quite low compared to the MBTA’s peer agencies and could be hiked beyond $80 and still be seen as a bargain.

4: Charge for CharlieCards (and maybe CharlieTickets too)
When I was living in and around DC,the initial cost for a SmarTrip was (as is now) $5. In contrast, the CharlieCard is free. I’m not saying to emulate WMATA – nobody ever should – but even if the MBTA charged as little as $2 for a CharlieCard it’d make some money. Imagine how much they could’ve made over the last eight years off of CharlieCards for a nominal fee.
Similarly, the MTA in New York is now charging $1 for a new MetroCard. I think even a 50 cent surcharge on getting a new CharlieTicket would raise some extra funds and would show those that use them that getting a CharlieCard would be a good move to make.

5: One More Quarter
Compared to peer agencies, even with last year’s fare increases CharlieCard fares are still cheap at $1.50 for bus and $2.00 for rail. Hiking these by a quarter while leaving the $2.00/$2.50 cash fare as-is would still have the MBTA on the low end of their peer agencies. Ideally, going to one united fare would be good but the insistence of having bus be cheaper than rail would need to be put on the back burner.

6: Peak hour MBCR surcharges
Being from the New York area, I’m used to the concept of a peak-hour surcharge on both Metro North and the LIRR, charging a higher fare going into Penn/Grand Central in the morning and out in the evening. I know the MBCR lines don’t have the intensive levels of service that their New York counterparts have, but a surcharge of a couple of dollars for trains during rush hour would help raise some extra money from suburbanites. There are some problems with this, namely if the Zone 1A and Fairmount Line stations should be made exempt or not, but it’s worth the thought.

7: Take one for the team, Local 589
With service cuts come the inevitable complaints about unionized labor and all the negative stereotypes of unions and the “typical” unionized employee. While Local 589 doesn’t have the overtime abuse problems of TWU 100 and the other MTA unions or the mass corruption at ATU 689 at WMATA, I think that it might be a good PR move for Local 589 to make some concessions to help protect their jobs. Given the choice between voluntarily taking a pay rollback of a couple of percent and having jobs flat-out eliminated, I’d be willing to take that most Local 589 members would seriously consider the former. Such a move would be a sign of solidarity and would send a good message to a union-cynical public in a time when unions need the good PR.

I have one other bigger idea I’ll share in another post, but these would be better than getting rid of all weekend Commuter Rail service or ending bus service a good two hours before subway service. Then again, doomsday is doomsday and often doomsday never comes.




354 (Boston-Woburn EXPRESS)

Lately, I’ve been riding to and from work with the wife because taking transit would cost me quite a bit in time and money. Two mornings not too long ago (one the week of Christmas, the other earlier this month), she took ill and needing a way to work, I finally had a reason to ride the 354 as I work near its end and it’s the same cost with half the vehicles involved. Yes, it’s time for some Outer Express action!

The 354 is a rush-hour link between Downtown Boston and the southern half of Woburn which has seen some reductions as of late, the most recent round of service cuts cost the 354 its midday service and ended the 354’s sister the 355 which served Mishawum Road Beginning at State station, it runs on a loop which also serves Government Center and a stop adjacent to Haymarket on New Sudbury Street; on the mornings I rode outbound, the buses averaged about half-full for the penultimate morning outbound run. It then immediately crosses the Zakim Bridge on its from the North End. It stays on I-93 as it soars through Charlestown, a slice of Cambridge, and Somerville before reducing its elevation, passing by Assembly Square, and crossing into Medford. At Exit 32, the 354 briefly exits onto MA 60 to serve Medford Square, a stop that generates few if any passengers. Getting back on I-93, it leaves the highway for once and for all at Exit 36 (Montvale Ave) on the Stoneham/Woburn line where it winds through a swath of Woburn including West Cummings Park and Woburn Square before reaching Route 3 at the Five Corners intersection, following the 350 route until it ends at an office park at Van de Graff Drive in Burlington and given that about 2/3 of those who were on leaving Boston were still on when I got off, this was their probable final destination. All outbound runs leaving Boston after 6:00 PM omit this last stop and run up Route 3A to serve stops the 352 serves otherwise, this leads to some hilarious signs reading “354 Woburn” on 3A North.

My inbound trip, taken on the first PM trip, was a bit more hit-or-miss. As that run has a long deadhead from Fellsway Garage in Medford, traffic on I-93 delayed it 25 minutes on a bitter late December day. Two long delays in Woburn with packs of high school/college students headed into Boston on break trying to add money to their CharlieCards on the bus did not help matters. If an inbound bus is heavily delayed or I-93 has heavy traffic, the 354 has an option to exit at Sullivan Square and head into Boston via MA 99 and on this day this option was taken. Regardless of route, once in Boston it only makes one stop at State and Congress before beginning its outbound run. All in all, my trip arrived 45 minutes later than scheduled due on this day and I still had to backtrack towards Haymarket which led to an extra 10 minute wait.

The 354 fills a good niche but frankly it needs a lot of work because right now there are many inherent flaws.

  • The lack of an inbound stop for Haymarket and Government Center is one especially since it doesn’t correspond to the outbound pattern. A quick fix would be to stop at the Congress & Hanover stop the 4/92/93 use would be a great start but a better solution would be to put a stop under the garage at Congress & New Sudbury which would make for better transfers for all Haymarket passengers.
  • Extending the route to Burlington Mall if not the redeveloped Northwest Park development would be a good plus as it is an actual destination versus a mere terminal at an office park.
  • Most of the local portion has no other service which makes it hard to build regular ridership. I think a “local” version would help for additional base peak service and for midday and Saturday service and patching it into two nearby routes may help.
  1. Create a new route which follows the 132 from Malden to the intersection of Main and Montvale in Stoneham, then down Montvale to the current 354 local route. This wouldn’t just give Woburn extra service but would give Stoneham its elusive second bus line
  2. Building on a suggestion made in my post on the 134, make a new route which follows the 134 from Wellington to Winchester Center, then goes on Washington Street up to the current 354 route. This helps Winchester and Wellington is the better transfer point but would it really work for Winchesterites?
  • Adding a stop outside Sullivan Square would help, especially as a bail point for the Orange Line since given traffic it might be just as fast to take that versus going down to State. It seems that more often than not outbound runs make that detour anyway, why not serve it?

I should stop now…

Route: 354 (Boston-Woburn EXPRESS)
Rating (1-10): 7

Ridership: Heavily tilted towards commuters with some hometown riders on the local portion with most riding end to end on reverse commute runs. I’d assume traditional commute runs have more pickups on the Woburn end than the reverse.

Pros: It links areas with no other transit and the nonstop portions via I-93 are always nice especially with the huge panoramic views soaring over Sullivan Square stretching from Cambridge to Chelsea. The fact that this allows some redundancy for Woburnites to get into Boston is another plus.

Cons: The flaws mentioned above and the routing around Woburn Square heading inbound which often causes delays. More of a personal pet peeve but changing the destination/name to “Woburn-Burlington EXPRESS” would be a bit more honest to the real end of the route. Also, the late runs into Burlington scream of this route and the 352 one day being (re-)consolidated in a future round of cuts and this may not be the best thing.

Nearby and Noteworthy: Doing this for a rush hour express route with few other transit connections can be difficult since frankly most of its route through Woburn is residential and what would be of interest is near other routes and I’d like to save Medford Square for its own review. This is a route to ride for the experience more than to go anywhere.

134 (North Woburn-Wellington)

I spent exactly four weeks living in Winchester, a town which like any of the northwestern suburbs could be considered to be transit-starved. I’ve reviewed the 350 (and an alternate view on that route, the more blogs, the merrier!), one of only two bus routes to serve the town, in the past so it’s only appropriate to review the other route serving my short-term hometown, the 134.

The 134 is a long and thin route which starts at Wellington station and goes up to what the MBTA calls “North Woburn”, a spot just short of the Woburn/Wilmington line on MA 38. The Medford portion of the route meanders its way northwest through Medford via Fellsway and Riverside Avenue serving places ranging from the practically dead Meadow Glen Mall to the charming Meford Square neighbourhood. At Medford Square, the 134 meets MA 38 which it follows for the rest of the route minus some minor diversions and not far from there is the terminal point for the 325 rush hour express into Boston and enters a very picturesque stretch with lots of greenery between there and Winchester Center station. Every other 134 bus and all night service does not leave the Medford city limits, terminating just short of the Winchester line at a layover point at Winthrop Street and Playstead Road. Past Winchester Center, the 134 goes through old-line suburbia including Woburn’s town center before hitting the 128-related sprawl which Woburn is more known for.

Riding one rainy afternoon the 134 was already 3/4 full upon departure from Wellington and of that amount most who got off before Medford Square were easily replaced by someone else and when I got off at Winchester Center the bus was about 60% full. In the month I lived in Winchester, there always during service hours someone waiting at the stop at the commuter rail station and this is for a route with bare-bones service. At the same time, the long length of the 134 and the fact that for most of its route MA 38 is a two-lane road leads to regular delays for buses running the entire route. This makes me wonder if the 134 needs to be redrawn, enhanced, split in two – one Twitter follower had the idea of extending all 134’s to Winchester Center and making North Woburn service terminate there with a timed transfer – or something else. Personally, I feel the paradigm of service in the northwest suburbs needs to change but that’s for another post…or several.

Route: 134 (North Woburn-Wellington via Riverside Ave)
Rating (1-10): 5

Ridership: A mixed bag both in terms of demographics and places but there are four rough buckets.

1: Those who want to shop near Wellington but don’t want to deal with the mess of the Fellsway/Mystic Valley Parkway rotary on steroids (and for those wanting Meadow Glen Mall or the Shaw’s across the street, it’s a roundabout hike on foot from there).
2: Medford Square riders. For those wanting rail, the 134’s schedule sort’ve compliments the 96 down to Porter and Harvard for those who want a connection into Boston.
3: Winchester. And even though there are several stops around town, the Center is the one that gets the bulk of the use.
4: Woburn. A good chunk of people who get on at Wellington are in it for the long haul. Having tons of retail and office parks is the big driver here.

Pros: Over two years ago, I gave a deconstruction of the MBTA vs. WMATA in Washington, DC and I used the fact that Woburn has “redundancy” between the 134, 354 (and then 355), and Lowell Line as a plus over the “take Metro or else” culture in DC. The fact there is an alternative to grossly overpriced for distance commuter rail is a good thing, only problem is…

Cons: There is a line between distance and demand which the 134 needs to tread and there are no easy solutions. Between the delays, headways, and length, the 134 is a bit of a cursed route and it doesn’t help that the east-west connections in the suburbs are pitiful as well. Personally, I think transit in general there needs to be blown up (and this is from someone who has the dysfunctional setup in Saugus!) and redone to follow something resembling modern logic in Woburn, Winchester, Stoneham and such. Proposals are forthcoming.

Nearby and Noteworthy: If you like dead and dying malls, the best example in Greater Boston bar none is Meadow Glen Mall. Heading up the road, I’d give an honorable mention to Medford Square except that that stop is so major it should get its own visit and article. Otherwise, lots of Winchester overlap and there isn’t all that much interesting up Woburn way.

90 (Davis Square-Wellington via Sullivan and Assembly Square)

Before my recent review of Alewife, I had to find some way to get from my job near Sullivan Square to the Red Line. From there there I had a few choices – CT2 to Kendall, 91 to Central, 86 to Harvard, and the 89 or 90 to Davis. And as if on cue, all were late the day I had to take them and it came to the point of choosing between an 89 with no AC and a layover or a 90 halfway through its run. I chose the latter, but did I choose wisely?

While the 89 was about to begin a new run, the 90 was about one-thirds full from the start of its run at Wellington and (unlike the 89) had its AC blasting and the route north of Sullivan is mainly a connector to Assembly Square. After getting out of the maze that is Sullivan Square, I eventually ended up on Broadway in Somerville which was totally new territory for me, an area full of small neighborhood shops and some residences which saw some people getting on; at this point, the 90 supplements the 89 that I could’ve taken. The two streets split at Cross Street which is solely residential and has all of the markings of a neighborhood that’s dipping its toes in the lake known as gentrification. At this point, the 90 started to hit a very bad string of stop light luck as it hit just about every single red for the rest of the route. If I was riding just because, this would be a sudden distraction but on a day when I had a place to be it was a bit frustrating.

The waiting came to a head at Cross Street’s end at an awkward three-way intersection with McGrath Highway/MA 28 and Highland Avenue with the Fitchburg Line running underneath. From Cross Street, the 90 needs to swerve across two lanes of 28 onto the two turn lane that is the approach to Highland. The combination of overall traffic and the light cycles made getting out of this intersection an ordeal that nearly took five minutes on top of the delays this run already had. Getting onto Highland was actually met with some applause as hard as that could be to believe.

Regardless of what you want to call it, the intersection from heck serves as a dividing line from the gritter eastern half of Somerville and its more gentrified western half and the 90 then transitioned to a typical suburb of houses and apartment buildings with some businesses. In a way, it reminded me of a further-along version of my former neighborhood in Washington, DC and going through it I thought that if it didn’t clash with my wife’s commute, it’d be a great place to consider living in. Then again, I am a bit of a sucker for old fashioned suburbs…

The 90 eventually meets its end going through the back busway of Davis alongside the 87 and 88, bypassing the core of Davis Square. I’ll leave what happened next for another review.

Route: 90 (Wellington-Davis via Sullivan Square & Assembly Square). Rating (1-10): 5

Ridership: Nobody who was on when I got on at Sullivan got off which tells me that a lot of the ridership north of Sullivan is either price sensitive from Wellington to eastern Somerville or is coming from Assembly Square. A decent amount of people got off on Cross Street while just about everyone boarding on Highland Avenue was bound for Davis. A good generator on the western half is the pair of Somerville City Hall and the Somerville Public Library.

Pros: It’s a somewhat crucial link between halves of Somerville which is more true given how civic boundaries and the Mystic River isolate Assembly Square from the rest of town. I would not be shocked to guess that a good chunk of the 90’s ridership north of Sullivan are people heading there both to shop and to work. It’s also good for a bus hub like Wellington to have a connection to the Red Line.

Cons: This route can use some heavy headway adjustment as the route could honestly support more than a consistent 40 minutes from rush to rush (65 minutes at night) and 70 minutes on weekends. The Sunday span of service, starting after 10:00 AM and ending before 6:00 PM, is to be honest pretty sad.

Nearby and Noteworthy: Vinny’s at Night is a unique restaurant with a catch: It’s tucked behind a convenience store; this is much better than it sounds from everything I’ve heard. Closer to Davis Square, one of the few retail outlets of Maine bakery When Pigs Fly can be found on Highland Ave.

And in other news…: Bus diversions on the northern Orange Line start next weekend (June 9th, 2012) in preparation of the construction and opening of Assembly Square station; next weekend trains will run Sullivan-Forest Hills.