The Route 128 corridor is clearly one of the state’s economic engines. Just look at the vast array of cutting-edge tech and life science companies parked alongside it.
But when it comes to the mounting traffic woes that threaten to stall this growth driver, state leaders can’t seem to spare a dime to explore some long-term solutions, two prominent business-backed highway groups contend.
But despite an epic debate on Beacon Hill this year over transportation dollars, the Legislature and Governor Deval Patrick failed once again to cough up any money, the groups say.
It’s a rather unfavorable contrast with other states, such as Virginia, that are pumping billions to ensure that tech-laden business corridors like Route 128/Interstate 95 don’t become parking lots full of frustrated commuters, said Jack Troast, executive director of the 128 Corporate Alliance, which represents major companies and developers along the highway.
“Other states are investing from the standpoint of being competitive,” Troast said. “I think this lack of attention to shorter-term and longer-term solutions on 128 is not going to help us.”
One glaring example, Troast said, has been the failure of the state Department of Transportation to provide funding to study a potential bus and rail transportation center near Route 128, one that would help commuters ditch their cars and take public transportation to work.
A proposal first put forth two years ago by the 128 Central Corridor Coalition calls for adding a Weston rail stop and bus depot to the Fitchburg line for use by Route 128 commuters. Commuters from across the area would take the train to Weston, and then board buses to various office parks along the highway, Troast said.
As it stands now, the region’s commuter rail system is designed to move commuters in and out of Boston, not to and from other major economic hubs like 128, Troast noted.
A multimodal transportation center like the one proposed for Weston would provide a key connection to Route 128 for younger employees living in Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston, many of whom would rather take public transit to work, said Eric Bourassa, director of the transportation division of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.
“We’ve heard a lot of stories from companies about employees living in the urban core who want transit connections out to jobs on 128,” Bourassa said. The many younger workers now favoring an urban lifestyle, he said, “want the transit connectivity they are used to.”
It’s no pie-in-the-sky idea. The 128 Business Council, backed by some of the corridor’s biggest companies, already pays for shuttle bus service from Alewife Station in Cambridge.
The 128 Central Corridor Coalition, a panel of local officials from communities along the highway, recommended that a consulting firm be hired to do a thorough study of the idea when it released its report two years ago.
However, lining up the estimated $500,000 or more needed to study the idea has been challenging to say the least, noted Monica Tibbits-Nutt, executive director of the 128 Business Council.
Polaroid site developer Sam Park had talked of picking up half the cost of a study that would include the multimodal center, but Park said this week he has since sold his interest in the project to another developer.
State officials say they are aware of the concept, and have even taken steps to ensure that any improvements made to the Fitchburg line, which runs through Weston, “would support and not prevent a rail stop and depot in the future,” said Sara Lavoie, a MassDOT spokeswoman.
But there are no plans under consideration to pay for a study of the proposed transportation hub, she said.
However, a study is essential to see whether the idea is worth pursuing, Tibbits-Nutt said, with the project stuck in limbo without the initial step.
“It is a fantastic idea, but we still don’t even have the money to do the study to see if it’s feasible,” she said.
Meanwhile, state transportation officials also need to start exploring other ways to get commuters out of cars and into trains and buses, Troast contends.
Other states, faced with mounting traffic congestion along similar business corridors, have responded with major public transportation initiatives.
Virginia is on track to spend more than $2.6 billion to extend light rail along the Dulles Corridor, connecting the fast-growing suburbs of Northern Virginia with Washington, D.C.
Massachusetts should look at similar options for the 128 corridor, Troast said, pointing to the long-standing “bus on shoulder” idea. It would involve converting the breakdown lane into a dedicated shuttle-bus corridor, taking commuters to companies and workplaces along Route 128.
The 128 Business Council is also supportive of the idea, but notes that it could be very expensive as well.
Many bridges over 128 are too narrow to accommodate a new travel lane, and would have to be widened first, Tibbits-Nutt noted, a project that would cost millions of dollars.
The state Department of Transportation examined the idea, but found that widening the bridges would be “cost prohibitive,” wrote Lavoie, the agency’s spokeswoman, in an e-mail.
But the goal should be to head in that direction, not write off the idea altogether, Troast said.
“We need to improve the infrastructure to the extent we can,” he said. “It would be good to see the ability to do something at least like bus on shoulder.”
Still, to be fair, it’s not as if 128 is being completely neglected. Roughly half a billion dollars was spent on a number of projects to improve traffic flow, such as the recent Winter Street bridge revamp in Waltham and the conversion of breakdown lanes into regular highway lanes, noted Lavoie, the DOT spokeswoman.
But all are aimed at getting cars moving more efficiently along the highway, as opposed to looking at ways of getting commuters out of their cars altogether.
“People have to change their commuting habits,” Troast said, with single-occupant vehicles now representing 95 percent of the highway’s traffic. “Something has to change.” The Metropolitan Area Planning Council has already forecast a 77 percent jump in traffic over the next decade or two between where Route 128 connects with the Massachusetts Turnpike and where the highway meets Route 3 in Burlington.
That more limited approach can’t win in the end, with more and more traffic clogging up the 128 corridor each year as new office and retail developments open up alongside it.
The redeveloped Polaroid site in Waltham and the new apartment and retail complex just approved in Newton at Riverside Station are expected to dump thousands of additional cars onto Route 128.
Burlington is also seeing a series of major new office and retail developments that will add to traffic congestion on the highway.
“Traffic is going to continue to get worse and worse with the Polaroid development and additional buildings being built near 128,” Tibbits-Nutt said.