71 (Watertown Square-Harvard)

As of the time of this writing (May 3, 2013), Watertown is exactly two week removed from the most intense day of its 383 years of existence and its international day in the sun for better or worse. Aside from bombers in boats, Watertown is known for one of four things:

1: It’s place in the Amenian dispora in the United States (1/4 of Watertown’s population is of Armenian origin or decent).
2: The Watertown and Arsenal malls, though seen worldwide as a police staging area. The former has a Target, the latter has the iconic scoreboard from the old Boston Garden.
3: The home to NESN’s studios where sports-related magic and the occassional misery (Dan Duquette Jr’s “NESN Nation” segments) originates.
4: The 71, one of the MBTA’s three trackless trolley routes originates.

For the focus of this article, let’s focus on the 71 which I recently rode not even 18 hours after said bomber was found in said boat. Starting at its terminal loop at Watertown Square, it takes a straightforward route down Mount Auburn Avenue straight through to the Harvard Bus Tunnel. Having boarded at Watertown Square before, I decided to take a challenge and walk up the street to the Starbucks inside an obvious former Friendly’s to see how Watertownians were holding up. Save for a couple of journalists with cameras getting footage, you wouldn’t have thought you were on a town which less than 24 hours before was in lockdown.

Getting on the 71, you start to see the heart of Watertown being the sleepy suburb it usually is. A mix of small businesses and houses which are indicitive of Watertown’s past as a streetcar suburb. There are also a smattering of churches, at least two of which have had their buildings converted to condos. In contrast to the heavily commercialized district on Route 20 to its south, it is very, very quaint even in contrast to the slightly more commerercial 73. Eventually, the two join each other for their joint run through Cambridge, boardered for much of the initial stretch by Mount Auburn Cemetery with a few exceptions, namely Mount Auburn Hosptial and the interchange with Memorial Drive with its very old exit signs. The home stretch is mostly residential save for some office buildings near Harvard Square.

Trackless routes are always a treat and for that alone, the 71 is worth the ride even if there isn’t as much “stuff” as its sister the 73. Still a good route to ride

Route: 71 (Watertown Square-Harvard)
Rating (1-10): 8

Ridership: Heading inbound, most people ride through to Harvard with the two biggest stops otherwise being the aforementioned Mount Auburn Hospital and the Shaw’s Star Market across the Cambridge Line (with beer/wine/liquor!). Riding outbound has the same patterns, most board at Harvard or those two and ride straight through to their destination.

Pros: Trolleybuses are rare and you should ride them. At least here the poles don’t come off the wire regularly and a driver won’t crush your pinkie toe as a driver on the SEPTA 66 accidentally did to me once. Bonus points to the billboard raising awareness of the Armenian Genocide which often gets swept under the rug for political reasons.

Cons: Outside of showing some slight bias to the 73 – fording the intersection of routes 16 and 20 can be a pain sometimes – I wonder why stringing a few hundred feet of wire across the Charles to Watertown Yard can’t be done. Not to complain about a 2 minute walk, but wouldn’t it make sense to consolidate to one terminal?
Dishonorable mention: Who knew there would be diesel buses running on the trackless routes on a Saturday afternoon? The day I rode there were two running on the 71 and one on the 72 laying over outside Harvard.

Nearby and Noteworthy: The Deluxe Town Diner is a Watertown landmark which is a very good example of a 1940s vintage diner and has earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places.

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57 (Kenmore-Watertown Yard)

I had originally begun writing a draft about a review for the 57 a couple of months ago and that review would’ve been centered on a trip I took 3.5 years ago. Now that Watertown, for reasons better or worse, has had its day in the global sun, I mulled re-posting that review but instead decided to re-ride the route and rewrite this review.

On my original trip, I got on at Watertown Yard after a ride on the 71, walking across the by-then-narrow Charles from Watertown Square. After the commercial strip from Watertown to Newton Corner, the 57’s route goes through some pretty residential areas until it hits Oak Square in Brighton where it becomes more commerical before reaching Brighton Avenue in Allston and eventually meeting Comm Ave at Packard’s Corner. I ended up bailing at Pleasant Street at the sight of the then-brand-new Raising Cane’s being miffed that they’d be open so north and having never been.

Fast forward to the present and for a launching point I decided to start where I ended years ago and do the trip in reverse. After a few minutes of waiting, the 57 showed up with a half-full load which made its way down Comm Ave from Kenmore, often racing the B in the process. The overlap of the two modes goes for another half-mile before splitting and following its trolley predecessor. Along the Brighton Ave stretch of the 57, you can notice the former center median where the A run and you can wonder “is this really progress replacing trains with a bunch of granite, grass, and the occasional flower?” If you examine the A up until Union Square, I assure you you’ll shake your head at how short-sighted the MBTA was to walk away from a route which still thrived sans rail and that it’d give additional capacity for the BU portion of the route.

As Allston blends into Brighton, the pace slows and you see the quaint streetcar suburb which formed around the now 57 with a quaint main street dotted with restaurants, small shops, and an assortment of dwellings. With the length of the route, you may also wonder how generations before who had the the then-A kept their sanity commuting to and from Boston given the frequent stops. After Oak Square in the heart of Brighton (terminus of the rush-hour 57A short-turn and express bus service), the 57 eventually blends into northern Newton and has more of the same charm with the added liability that they’re the main reason why the A was left to die.

At Newton Corner, the 57 avoids the time-consuming loop the express buses make and continues straight into nearby Watertown. Getting off at Watertown Yard, you see the abandoned track leads still embedded in the pavement and you may mull if the right thing was done with the predecessor of the bus you just rode. Odds are, unless you’re headed to Newtown Centre, Needham, or Dedham, you’re walking across the river to see how great preservation can be.

Route: 57 (Kenmore-Watertown Yard via Brighton Ave)
Rating (1-10): 7

Ridership: The pre-2007 service pattern of limited stop service on Comm Ave (pickup-only outbound, discharge-only inbound) still seems to linger as very few people get on inbound/get off outbound in the shared portion. Those getting on before are bound for western Allston, Brighton, or Watertown and those heading inbound will just stay on until Kenmore. There’s some local ridership too, heavily centered on those in the residential areas or Allston.

Pros: Save for portions of Brighton Avenue where the 64 and 66 also operate, the 57 is the sole bus service for a good swath of Boston and it is a key connector for an area with heavy transit use (Allston) to the rest of the system. The scenery in Brighton and Newton is also quaint New England suburban in all the right ways.

Cons: This used to be a trolley and spent a quarter-century dying on the vine for what? There are so many what-ifs on the history of this route – what if someone made trolleys for the 20+ years between the PCC’s end and the Boeing LRV’s start, what if Dukakis had political will to restore the A – that it could be a post of its own.

Nearby and Noteworthy: On Brighton Avenue, there is the wonderful Sunset Grill and Tap, along with its next door neighbor Patron’s and back on Comm Ave their sister Sunset Cantina. All three have some very off the wall menu items and have alcohol selections. I recommend reading your menu and bringing your wallet and an empty stomach because you will love any of the three.
For the sake of history, the Oak Square Dunkin’ Donuts has many pictures of the former A branch adorning its wall which sets it apart from the several other Dunks on its route.

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.

 

 

554 (Waverley Sq-Downtown Boston EXPRESS)

Summer is ending. Kids are going back to school and the B branch will be a mess full of college students. And I’m at the moment slated to take two sets of two six-week courses for grad school while looking for an job and an apartment of our own. As a result, I’m taking a small break from heavy riding to focus on rerailing my life. That said, I needed a way to go out with a fun review.

That said, one ride on the 73 (review coming soon!) got me to Waverly Square in Belmont, adoptive home of a former Massachusetts Governor who may or may not become 45th President of the United States. This review isn’t about the 73 or the nearby Fitchburg Line station: It’s about the 554. Yes, it’s time for more Inner Express Fun!

The 554 begins at Waverly Square and works its way down Lexington Street to the Belmont/Watertown Line to Belmont Street going through a largely residental area. Crossing into Waltham, it crosses over the Fitchburg Line where you can look left and see the very station you just left. Transitioning onto Beaver Street it passes by the Girl Scouts’ Camp Cedar Hill and the Bentley University campus and most of its athletic facilities.

Eventually, the 554 turns onto the desirable Moody Street corridor, north of the Charles running with the more frequent 70A and running by a bunch of small businesses. After looping through Central Square and passing by Waltham Commuter Rail, it crosses the Charles and continues through the trendier part of Moody Street with its express sister, the 553 which terminates at Brandeis/Roberts. Shortly after crossing into Newton, it turns onto River Street which itself turns into Elm Street.

At the corner of Elm and Washington, passing by the interestingly named Keltic Krust and West Newton station, the 554 begins to run on Washington Street. Which parallels the Framingham/Worcester Line. Which itself parallels the MassPike. Sitting on the right side of a bus will give an interesting viewpoint especially if a train is passing. Like most 500-series routes, the last stop before the Pike is Newton Corner and its roundabout loop to get to or from the highway. After that it’s the usual 500-series sights (see the 504, but in reverse) before getting off at Exit 24 and hitting three downtown stops before the last stop in the Financial District, however on this ride all 12 passengers got off at the first stop, two blocks from Chinatown and South Station. In inauspicious ride to an route rarely traveled.

Route: 554 (Waverley Sq-Downtown Boston EXPRESS)
Rating (1-10): 6

Ridership: The 12 passengers above was the maximum amount for a mid-afternoon run. Of the four passengers who got on at Waverley, three lasted towards the end with a few others getting on around Bentley and the rest along Moody Street. Given the time of day and the competition – 73 to Red Line takes less time, is more frequent, and cheaper – this is understandable since it exists more as a Belmont/Waltham connection first then as an express.

Pros: It serves as an intersuburban connection that happens to go into town. The Washington Street part of the route is also interesting especially after having seen it from the Pike many times.

Cons: The 554’s weekend service (Saturdays only to Newton Corner) was a victim of the recent service cuts. If you’re not a Bentley student, this is a downside even though under 200 riders on average were affected as of 2010. That and it’s semi-pointless to ride the 554 the entire way unless a single-seat ride is a must.

Nearby and Noteworthy: You know those random Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods that taunt people from the Pike? I’d put them behind Bison County. Any place that does barbecue in New England is a place worth visiting. In fact, Waltham has a ton of good restaurants, picking one was not an easy task.

504 (Watertown Yard-Downtown via Turnpike)

MBTA Express buses fall into one of three camps:

– The 300 series which run mostly via I-93 to Medford, Woburn and Burlington (plus the 351 reverse peak route to Burlington/Bedford)
– The 400 series which serve the North Shore which includes such rare runs as the 3-times-daily 428 to western Saugus and Wakefield High School and the once- daily 434 to Peabody, going via either US 1 or MA 1A.
– The 500 series which run via the Mass Pike to Newton, Watertown, and Waltham.

Most of these routes run in lieu of commuter rail or subway service. One of these, the 504 running between downtown and Watertown Yard, has a bit of an interesting heritage and could be seen as a rail killer. Being created two years prior to the abandonment of the A branch of the Green Line, I wonder how much rush hour ridership this route (then the 304) siphoned from the trolley before its demise. The one-seat ride is quicker than an old PCC could’ve done and how current run of the 57 to the Green Line can do today.

My ride on the 504 began one uneventful Thursday at Copley Square, waiting for a bus that was half-full and five minutes late. Immediately I notice the bus number, 0552, and realize, “it’s THAT bus”. I was lucky enough to pass 0552 on I-90 somewhere in Northeast Ohio when it was en route from Neoplan’s Colorado plant to Boston back in 2005. It wasn’t the first time I came across MBTA buses en route to delivery, but it was the most random by far. Now, I’d finally get a chance to ride it.

Immediately getting on the Pike from Copley, 0552 zoomed by a bunch of local sights. Fenway Park and its anti-gun ads, the Comm Ave bridge (and BU West station), the to-
be-closed CSX rail yard, the side-by-side headquarters of New Balance and WGBH. Exiting before reaching the tiny Newton stations of the Worcester Line and the Star Market
overpass, it reached Newton Corner and a very awkward loop before going on its way into Watertown. Seeing such sights as a UNO, I wonder “it was THIS that had Newton in a snit
which killed the A Line?” Leaving Newton Corner, our luck of lights and lack of stops had us at Watertown Yard a good 20 minutes after we left Copley. I then take the quick walk across the Charles to reach a 71 to continue my journey knowing I had one of the more unique rides in the system.

Route: 504 (Watertown Yard/Newton Corner EXPRESS via Turnpike)
Rating (1-10): 8

Ridership: For a run on the cusp of PM rush, a mix of people heading from days in town, people possibly heading back from interviews, and people taking an early day off.
Bus was about half-full and everyone either got off at Newton Corner or Watertown Yard.

Pros: It’s the only express route to run into Boston on the weekends (well, Saturday at least) and is a good alternative to the 57-Green Line and 71-Red Line combos. It’s also FAST and its speed is worth every penny of its $3.50.

Cons: Analyzing this on its merit of an express route, none. I would say that this could use better frequency but considering that this route isn’t that long and there are two backup routes it’d split a small pie. Besides, the remaining express 400’s could use more service as they have no local alternatives.

Nearby and Noteworthy: Get off at Watertown Yard and just observe your surroundings. See the wire that may never be used again (at least until the next round of trackless trollies if there ever is one). See tracks which will never be used again. And think of what might’ve been. Thank you Governor Weld…