The results of a recent survey conducted by Town Planner Bill Scanlan show that a significant number of Harvard residents would use a commuter shuttle service from Harvard to one of two stations on the MBTA’s Fitchburg commuter rail line.
The survey was available online from February 16 to March 27. In a recent interview, Scanlan said he had anticipated 50 to 100 responses, but received 178. Respondents were asked whether they would use a shuttle service, which train station they would prefer, the primary purpose for using a shuttle, how often they would use it, what factors would be most important in deciding whether to use it, and their preferred commuter parking location.
Of the respondents, 84 percent said they would use a shuttle from Harvard to a train station. The Littleton station was preferred over the Ayer station, with 69 percent of respondents selecting Littleton. Commuting to work would be the primary purpose for 49 percent of respondents to use the shuttle. Other purposes included cultural activities (22 percent), other business purposes (10 percent), medical appointments (9 percent), visiting friends and family (6 percent), shopping (2 percent), and school (1 percent). When asked how often they would use the shuttle, 45 percent of those surveyed said they would use it less than once a week, 30 percent said one to three days per week, and 25 percent said they would use it four or five times a week.
The top three factors that respondents said would be most important to them in deciding whether to use the shuttle service were reliability, time of trains leaving or arriving at the local station, and cost. The survey gave four options for the preferred parking location: town center, Ayer Road, the Transfer Station, and “other” (to be specified by respondent). More than half of respondents preferred parking somewhere in the town center, 43 percent chose the Transfer Station, 37 percent selected Ayer Road, and 14 percent chose another location.
Though most respondents would prefer to park in the town center, Scanlan said this might not be possible, because finding parking in this area is already a challenge. He said using town-owned land would help keep the cost of the service low. With this in mind, he said the Transfer Station looked like the best option, but he did not rule out town center parking altogether.
The real challenge will be funding the service. Scanlan has been working with the Montachusett Regional Transit Authority (MART) to cost options. MART’s original cost analysis compared a MART-operated service to a service that would use Harvard’s Council on Aging’s (COA) MART van. A MART-operated service could serve 44 passengers a day five days a week for $79,178 per year. The town could deduct $11,220 of that cost in fare revenue for a total yearly cost of $67,958. Harvard also pays the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) a yearly assessment of $28,105 that could be reassigned to further offset the cost of a shuttle service. Even so, according to Scanlan, the cost of the MART-run service is not something that the town can afford.
The other option that was being considered was to use the COA’s MART van for shuttle service. This van is much smaller than the MART-operated van and, according to MART calculations, could accommodate only 24 commuter rail passengers a day for five days a week at a cost of $39,780 per year. While this option would make the service more affordable to the town, it would not meet the demand shown by the survey results. In addition, using the COA van as a commuter shuttle would put additional wear and tear on an already heavily used vehicle. This van now provides transportation for Harvard’s seniors and people with disabilities. According to Debbie Thompson, the COA’s director, the current van has 125,000 miles on it. Moreover, using the van as a shuttle would conflict with its use for senior transportation, particularly in the late afternoon.
Given the interest in a commuter shuttle service shown by the survey, Scanlan says he will continue to investigate other options.