This week, Town Planner Bill Scanlan is conducting an online survey to gauge interest in a potential commuter shuttle service from Harvard to one of two stations on the MBTA’s Fitchburg commuter rail line. In a Feb. 13 interview, Scanlan said the survey consists of seven questions and will take less than five minutes to complete. Residents wishing to participate can access the survey at www.surveymonkey.com/r/GJKS6HL. The survey will be available until March 17.
The Fitchburg line provides daily service between Wachusett Station and Boston’s North Station. The stations on the Fitchburg line closest to Harvard are located to the north in Ayer’s town center and to the east in Littleton at Route 2 and Interstate 495. Harvard commuters wishing to use the commuter rail line currently face fierce competition for parking spaces at both stations, with most spaces being filled before 7 a.m. The Littleton–Route 495 station has 224 parking spaces available for $4 per day. According to the MBTA, the average availability of spaces at this lot is around 2 percent. Parking at the Ayer station is free but there are only 30 spaces, and the lot is often filled well before prime commute times.
Scanlan has been working with the Montachusett Regional Transit Authority (MART) to come up with options that might make it more convenient for Harvard residents working in the metro area to access commuter rail.
MART has proposed providing a weekday shuttle service to either the Ayer station or the Littleton station. The shuttle would make two runs each morning and two each evening. The ultimate choice of station would be based on survey feedback. The fee proposed for the service has not been finalized, but Scanlan estimates that it will be around $1 to $2 per one-way trip.
The Planning Board has identified three possibilities for shuttle service parking. Scanlan says that it would make sense for parking to take place on municipal property. Using municipal property rather than leasing from a private owner would allow the town more flexibility in configuring the parking lot and adding signage. One possibility might be for shuttle users to park and be picked up in the center of town, but Scanlan admits this is probably not the ideal solution as town center parking is already in short supply. The other options are to use town land in either the Ayer Road area or at the Transfer Station.
According to a cost estimate provided by MART, a MART-operated shuttle service would cost Harvard $79,178 per year. This would be offset by the estimated fare revenue of $11,220, leaving the town responsible for finding an additional $67,958 per year to cover operating costs. Scanlan says this is out of Harvard’s price range.
Running the service would be possible, however, if the town is able to use the MART van currently used for the Council on Aging’s (COA) shuttle service for seniors and people with disabilities. Using the COA van would allow the town to run the service at a lower cost than the MART-operated service. MART estimates that by using the COA van, the town would be able to provide the service for $39,780 per year. The cost would be further offset by applying the $28,105 yearly assessment fee that Harvard is required to pay the MBTA toward the cost of the shuttle service. This would leave the town responsible for finding only an additional $11,675 per year.
Scanlan says that the use of the van for transit shuttle service would not interfere with the COA’s service for seniors. According to Scanlan, if the town is unable to use the COA van, it would need to purchase a van, making the proposed service “unaffordable.”
On Feb. 14, Debbie Thompson, director of the Council on Aging, said that the COA board of directors had not yet met to discuss the matter. Both Scanlan and the COA are waiting to see if there is enough interest from town residents to pursue the matter further. If the survey results indicate interest in the service, the Planning Board will approach the COA with a detailed proposal.