Five area towns will outfit their public transportation vehicles with GPS devices next month to gather information on routes and riders, with the goal of using the data to merge services next year.
Acton, Boxborough, Littleton, Maynard, and Stow received a $185,000 state grant in March to pay for the study. Officials say their current services — aimed primarily at senior citizens — often duplicate each other, with several towns sending nearly-empty vans to the same place all at once.
“What we’re hoping for, by combining these all together, is to have more locations where we can bring people and better accessibility,” said Doug Halley, Acton’s health director, who is leading the study.
The GPS units will gather data from July through September, and then officials will develop an intermunicipal agreement on how to combine the transportation services. Halley said he hopes shared busing will begin July 1 of next year.
The Clock Tower Place office park in Maynard, which provides transportation for employees, will also participate in the study.
“By having the GPS information, we’ll be able to compile a lot more data on what kind of overlap there is now,” said Littleton Town Administrator Keith Bergman. “We’d like to move from the anecdotal to the analytical. The solution is going to require specific information about how many trips are we running, how many people are on them, where are they, when are they — that data will be vital to finding a better way to provide the service.”
The towns want to use their existing transportation money to become more efficient, rather than seek increased funding.
“It’s not a case of money,” said Michael Sullivan, Maynard’s town administrator. “It’s how we’re spending the money.”
Sullivan said there are more transportation options in the sparsely-populated western part of the state where he lives than there are in Maynard.
“Coming from a region that is much less dense but has solved this riddle, I don’t see why we can’t,” Sullivan said.
Halley said that, in addition to sharing vehicles and drivers, the towns will likely create a centralized dispatch service. Currently, he said, seniors in most towns have to request a ride 24 to 48 hours in advance.
“We would have a system that would be responsive immediately to people’s needs,” Halley said.
In addition to providing better service to seniors, Halley said, consolidation could open up transportation services to new populations. Acton already transports children to recreation areas, but that service is often overbooked, he said.
“We have to say no to some of those people because they’re coming at different times from different locations,” Halley said. He added that consolidating services with the other towns may alleviate the problem by making more vehicles available.
Eventually, Haley said, officials hope to include more private partners that run shuttle services, such as hotels and car dealerships.
Some advocates for seniors said they worry about the changes having unintended negative effects.
Alyson Toole, executive director of the Council on Aging in Stow, said she worries about seniors having to spend more time on vans while they wait to pick up other passengers. Also, she said, sharing vans with multiple towns could erode the relationships seniors develop with their drivers.
“The van driver really gets to know the seniors and their particular needs,” Toole said. “They become almost extra eyes and ears for the outreach.
“I’m willing to look into it. There’s pros and cons to everything. Just right now I haven’t seen the benefits as much.”
Sharon Mercurio, director of the Acton Council on Aging, said she shares some of Toole’s concerns about merging transportation services.
“If more school-aged children are using it after school, what about the senior that this is their only way to get to a doctor’s appointment,” Mercurio said. “It’s just those kinks that we’re going to have to work out.”
Halley said the towns will work with senior groups to make sure they’re happy with the service.
“The goal of this is not to take away from the Councils on Aging, but to give more to them,” Halley said.