Commuters and Watertown officials say it’s been a bumpy ride for local MBTA patrons the past few years.
As ridership surged on several bus lines that carry Watertown residents to Boston and Cambridge, chronic overcrowding and spotty scheduling have pervaded the system, according to customers of the mass transit system. Riders say many have been left standing out in the elements for long periods of time — sometimes watching overcrowded buses pass them by — and been made hopelessly late to work.
The problem has led to the formation of a citizens group, which has dozens of active members, aimed at lobbying the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to make sweeping improvements in the area.
Members of the Watertown Task Force on Public Transit, which was formed in the spring by the civic organization Sustainable Watertown, successfully persuaded the Town Council to write a letter to the state imploring change, and noting that Watertown’s annual assessment for T service is more than $2 million. MBTA general manager Beverly Scott subsequently visited Watertown twice in the past six months to address the issues.
MBTA representatives said the agency last month increased off-peak service on the No. 57 and No. 70 bus lines, and improved scheduling on the No. 71 and No. 73 trackless trolley lines, but lacks the money necessary to add buses during rush hour.
“There is currently no funding in place to expand and operate a larger MBTA bus fleet,” authority spokesman Joe Pesaturo wrote in an e-mail, responding to a request for comment. “Moreover, the T cannot expand the size of the bus fleet without first building bus maintenance facilities to accommodate additional buses.”
Still, that won’t stop some residents from trying to get more from the T.
Town Councilor Aaron Dushku said it is unacceptable for the authority to hide behind the lack of funding as an excuse.
“They’re short on money all throughout the system, but they are improving in other certain places,” Dushku said in an interview. “The best they can do is start rearranging, and rearrange in our favor a little bit.”
Joe Levendusky, a Sustainable Watertown member who helped create the citizens task force, said he moved to Watertown six years ago specifically so he could avoid buying a car. Amid the weak economy, he has seen more people relying on the bus, he said, and watched the T struggle to keep up with the demand.
“We hear of instances every week where there are people waiting 40 minutes for a bus that’s supposed to run every 15 minutes,” Levendusky said, and noted that it happened to him recently, and caused him to be late for a business meeting. “And bus drivers often have to stop picking up passengers before the end of the line because they’re so overcrowded.”
And with new developments springing up along the Pleasant and Arsenal street corridors that will be adding hundreds of residential units and more office and retail space to the 4-square-mile town, Levendusky and others worry the already overburdened system will slip even more.
Dushku said an unreliable mass transit system could undermine new commercial projects, particularly in the Arsenal Street area.
“We are growing and developers are making plans for expansion,” Dushku said. “We want to be able to offer dependable yet sustainable transportation for their employees, but that’s hard to guarantee right now. It’s difficult to sell office space if employees can’t get there easily.”
Dushku also said that since Watertown is perceived as a driving-centric community, developers have felt pressure to set aside more area for parking, leading to outcries among neighbors who wish to preserve the town’s residential character.
“We’re challenged to provide parking to people who want to live and do business here, because we have to, because transportation is inadequate,” he said, also noting that more residents with cars would mean more traffic. “Our population will keep on growing because people want to be here. The only way to discourage people from using cars is to provide adequate transportation.”
The state said it recognizes Watertown’s predicament. Pesaturo said the Department of Transportation is planning to spend up to $500,000 to identify problems along the Arsenal Street corridor and outline a plan on how to address them. The process could take up to two years, he said; he did not mention when the project is slated to begin.
Pesaturo said there has also been talk of forging ahead with a $75,000 study of the No. 70 bus route, which runs between Watertown and Cambridge’s Central Square, to help find ways to improve its performance. However, the funding for the study has not been found, he said.
Local residents insist that solving the mass transit problem should be a priority. Dushku said it would not only boost Watertown’s quality of life, but also help the environment and economy.
“One of our biggest fears is with the problems with service, people will get disgusted and go back to their cars,” he said. “We want people to make the choice to use public transit rather than get in their car.”
According to Town Councilor Angeline Kounelis, the task force has received inquiries from people who were considering moving to Watertown but hesitated after hearing reports on how badly the transportation service has slumped.
“What is most concerning to me is the implication that Watertown can be a less-than-desirable location to reside because of the T’s lack of quality service,” Kounelis wrote in an e-mail to MBTA general manager Scott that she also forwarded to the Globe. “We cannot allow Watertown’s reputation to be blemished through adverse insinuation of transportation inadequacies.”