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West

Framingham gathering puts focus on transit

MBTA chief urges aid for rail service

If business and government leaders at the 495/MetroWest Corridor Partnership’s conference had picked a theme song for their 11th annual gathering, it probably would have been a tossup between James Taylor’s “Traffic Jam” and Sammy Hagar’s “I Can’t Go 55.”

Painfully slow commutes between Boston and the MetroWest region were a recurring theme during the meeting Friday at the Sheraton Framingham Hotel and Conference Center, where the MBTA’s general manager, Beverly Scott, was the keynote speaker.

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Scott, who also serves as the state Department of Transportation’s rail and transit administrator, wasted no time letting her audience know she was aware of their firepower, beginning her speech by pointing out that “MetroWest is the second largest employment base in the Commonwealth,” and stating that in order for the region to grow that base, commuter rail service is going to have to grow too.

And while Scott offered impressive statistics about the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, including that its commuter rail is the fifth busiest in the United States, and the largest fully outsourced system in North America, she also gave the gathering of regional business and municipal leaders a can’t-have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too caution.

Overall commuter train ridership is down over the past decade from a 12 percent market share to a 9 percent share, Scott said, adding that she believed the decline was due in part to the MBTA having the fourth oldest rail equipment out of 28 systems across the United States.

‘There is no red or blue in transportation, only purple. . . . Issues of mobility should be nonpartisan.’

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The MBTA is adding new passenger cars to its fleet of 400, including bilevel trains that carry more passengers, Scott said. And recent expansions to the Framingham/Worcester commuter rail line, including 20 daily rides to Boston and 20 from Boston to MetroWest should help.

Scott also told the conference in fairly blunt terms that political partisanship will hamper the growth and modernization of the MBTA, as will the agency’s constant strain to secure government funding.

“There is no red or blue in transportation, only purple. . . . Issues of mobility should be nonpartisan,” she said.

Ultimately, Scott said, her vision was for the MBTA to be a “24/7 public transit operation.”

Rob Nagi, a principal with VHB/Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc., a Boston-based transportation planning firm, and cochairman of the regional public-private partnership’s Private Sector Transportation Committee, followed Scott with a David Letterman-like top 10 list of the region’s worst transportation nightmares.

Number 10 on Nagi’s list, which 495/MetroWest compiled with the MetroWest Daily News, was the intersection of routes 135 and 126 in downtown Framingham, which he described as a “major bottleneck” due, coincidentally, to the nearby grade crossings of busy rail lines.

The list also featured complaints about congested exits on the Mass. Turnpike, the Route 16 corridor through Milford, and the difficulty of the “reverse commute” from Boston to MetroWest and how it was preventing eager-to-work young professionals who live in the city and don’t own cars from seeking high-paying tech jobs in the region.

But the number one item was the day-and-night congestion on Route 9 between Natick and Shrewsbury.

Some of the gubernatorial candidates in attendance picked up the transportation ball.

Republican candidate Mark Fisher, who owns a small business in Auburn, scolded the state for continuing what he said were meant to be temporary highway tolls when their greatest beneficiary, the Mass. Pike, was paid for long ago.

On the Democratic side, Attorney General Martha Coakley reiterated her support for a gas tax to help pay for transportation initiatives, and state Treasurer Steve Grossman called for increased funding for summer work programs for college students, and to keep talented college students in Greater Boston after they graduate.

He also called for full funding for Governor Deval Patrick’s $1 billion-plus “The Way Forward” capital investment plan, which includes major transportation infrastructure overhauls.

Former Obama administration official Don Berwick, who said he was proud to be the only candidate on the dais who supported a single-payer health insurance system, insisted that the next governor’s agenda should be focused on job creation.

For all the agreement among the candidates, GOP hopeful Charlie Baker, who decried a gas tax, lamented a decrease in local government funding while state government spending has increased, and praised Worcester for being a top 50 manufacturing city in the United States, may have summed up the spirit of the event when he concluded, “What works in Boston doesn’t work in the rest of the state.”

James H. Burnett III can be reached at james.burnett@ globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.

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