Massachusetts needs world-class public transit

Experts and advocates gather at MassBay Community College to discuss strategies for building an interconnected public transit system.

John Phelan | Public Domain
Laura Davis
Laura Davis

Former Transform Transportation, Advocate, PIRG

On Wednesday, April 19th, MASSPIRG convened a panel of transit advocates, experts and riders to discuss strategies for building interconnected regional transit systems that make it easier to travel around Massachusetts without a personal vehicle.

The event, “Transforming Public Transit,” was held at MassBay Community College in Wellesley Hills and was co-hosted by MASSPIRG, the MassBay Student Government Association and TransitMatters.

MASSPIRG’s Laura Davis moderated the panel, which included Ethan Finlan and Jackson Moore-Otto from TransitMatters, Emily Van Dewoestine from the MetroWest Regional Transit Authority, Skyler Michaud, a Biotech student and public transit rider, and Colette Aufranc, a member of the Select Board for the Town of Wellesley.

Anthony Cacia | TPIN
Voices for a better transit system. From left to right: Emily Van Dewoestine, Colette Aufranc, Laura Davis, Jackson Moore-Otto and Ethan Finlan.

A vision for Regional Rail

TransitMatters, a group dedicated to improving transit in Greater Boston, opened the panel discussion with a vision for a more efficient and sustainable rail system.

Ethan Finlan, who co-leads the Regional Rail campaign at TransitMatters, highlighted the current barriers to using the commuter rail, including slow travel times, infrequent service, expensive fares, unreliable trains and inaccessible station platforms. But he didn’t stop there; Finlan then presented a comprehensive plan for building a fast, frequent, fully electrified regional rail system, with a train arriving every 30 minutes in suburban communities and every 15 minutes in denser neighborhoods.

On this new system, passengers would travel between modern stations with ADA accessible platforms. Cheaper and simpler fares with free transfers to subways, buses and other trains would further incentivize people to choose public transit over driving, leading to reduced traffic congestion in the region.

Jackson Moore-Otto, Program and Development Assistant for TransitMatters, spoke to the environmental benefits of electrifying the rail system, such as reducing local air pollution and climate-warming emissions from the transportation sector. The presentation also underscored the value of electric trains for delivering faster and more reliable service. As Finlan explained, “The most reliable diesel trains are five times less reliable than the least reliable modern electric trains.”

If state leaders can make progress on strategic early-action projects, staff up key agencies and allocate state level funding to compete for federal grants, the reality of Regional Rail could be just over a decade away.

Regional Rail will get polluting cars off the roads and reduce emissions from the commuter rail itself through electrification. Jackson Moore-Otto
Program and Development Assistant for TransitMatters

The essential role of Regional Transit Authorities

Local transit systems enable residents to accomplish local trips using an affordable, accessible and sustainable method of transportation. Additionally – they can bolster the use of regional rail by providing first and last mile connections between train stations and final destinations.

Emily Van Dewoestine, the Director of Fixed Route, Intermodal, & Marketing for the MetroWest Regional Transit Authority (MWRTA), joined the discussion to highlight how Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs) deliver local transit services to communities beyond the reach of the MBTA. The MWRTA is one of 15 RTAs in the state of Massachusetts and provides a mix of fixed-route and demand response transit services for 16 member communities.

CatchConnect, a new curb-to-curb MicroTransit system, is a recent innovation launched by the MWRTA and its municipal partners. Trips on the CatchConnect are booked similarly to a ride-hailing service, like Lyft or Uber, with customers requesting a ride when they need one via an app. CatchConnect serves all addresses within the Town of Wellesley and connects riders to key destinations beyond its borders, including Newton Wellesley Hospital, the Natick Community Center, the Woodland MBTA Station and the Waban MBTA Station.

Colette Aufranc, a member of the Select Board for the Town of Wellesley, highlighted the importance of the MWRTA’s services for transit-dependent riders but also noted that the Select Board is working to expand and diversify ridership. She emphasized the need for more funding for the state’s RTA. “Funding is complex and funding is in desperate need,” she emphasized.

Aufranc explained that about a quarter of the funding for the MWRTA comes from state contract assistance, which is where they need the most help and support. “At present, we’re closing the gap – 30% of our operational funding – with Covid funding and other grants which are either running out or not intended for ongoing operational needs,” she said.

The Massachusetts state legislature is considering a bill, An Act to Increase Regional Transit Accessibility in the Commonwealth (S.2277 & H.3272), which would raise the floor for state contract assistance and set up a dedicated fund for investments in regional transit.

Fortunately, there is broad public support for increasing the state’s financial contributions to the RTAs. According to a recently released MassINC poll, nearly 4 out of every 5 Massachusetts voters support a significant increase in state spending for the RTAs.

Staff | TPIN
Connecting communities with local bus service. Emily Van Dewoestine and Colette Aufranc stand in front of the MWRTA shuttle schedule at the MassBay Wellesley Hills campus.

Limited transit limits opportunities

Skyler Michaud, a Biotech student at MassBay, shared her personal experiences as a daily transit rider who navigates the Greater Boston area without a car.

When Michaud started as a student at MassBay, she lived in Dorchester and commuted to the Wellesley Hills campus several times each week to attend classes. Her commute involved two buses, two subways and a ride on a MWRTA shuttle. Her commute required 4 transfers and lasted an astonishing 2.5 hours each way.

Frequent service disruptions and poorly coordinated schedules often made her late for school and for work. Michaud eventually lost her job due to lateness stemming from her hectic commute, and after being humiliated by a professor for arriving late, she dropped out of her classes too.

Fortunately, Michaud found her way back to MassBay after relocating to a neighborhood that is better served by public transit. The MWRTA’s new CatchConnect program has also made the last leg of her journey from the Green Line to the MassBay campus easier and more efficient. The new on-demand service integrates more flexibly with Green Line train arrivals, ensuring shorter wait times and less uncertainty.

“This transportation system defines where we can go to school, where we can go to work, where we can live and how much the rent is going to be,” she said in her closing remarks. Michaud sees better public transit as a way to help level the playing field for everyone and help Massachusetts residents access opportunities like tuition free community college at institutions like MassBay.

This transportation system defines where we can go to school, where we can go to work, where we can live and how much the rent is going to be. Skyler Michaud
Biotech student at MassBay Community College

Building an interconnected transit system

Massachusetts needs a world-class regional transit system that can get people where they need to go faster than they can get there in a car.

Boston was the first city in the nation to build a subway line, and the state has an extensive network of train lines that connect cities and towns across the state. With adequate leadership, vision and funding, the state could once again lead the nation.

“We have a climate and a congestion crisis,” said Finlan. “We can’t rely on cars to get out of either.” Better public transit is key to enabling more Massachusetts residents to drive less and live more.


Laura Davis

Former Transform Transportation, Advocate, PIRG