West

Making it that ‘final mile’ to work in suburbia

Michele McDonald for the Boston Globe
For many, the hardest part of commuting is the “final mile” to the office.

WESTBOROUGH — Say you take the commuter rail to work in the suburbs west of Boston. After you step off the train, you need to find a ride to reach your office. Do you call a taxi? Request an Uber? Wait for a shuttle bus? Wait . . . is there a shuttle bus?

Making that “final mile” can be difficult. It’s an issue that many communities along the Interstate 495 corridor face, and it was the main topic of discussion Tuesday at the Boroughs+ Economic Development Summit.

Boroughs+ is a collaboration among leaders of the city of Marlborough, the towns of Northborough, Southborough, Westborough, Hopkinton, and Hudson, and the 495/MetroWest Partnership, a public-private economic development initiative that serves 35 communities.

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A panel discussion focused on finding ways to improve public transit west of Boston, and how to create more connections to that “final mile.” The panel moderator, Barry Bluestone of Northeastern University, noted that with housing prices rising in the Boston area, more families will be moving out to the western suburbs.

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Bluestone said seniors also will need ways of getting around. Using himself as an example, the 71-year-old professor said, “Ten years from now, you won’t want me driving a lot.”

Bluestone spoke of one potential solution: an Uber service for the elderly, which lets seniors ride free if they can’t afford it. Any senior who receives a free ride would be given a business card advertisement that says “your ride is compliments of . . .” with the name of the local business or organization that subsidized the service.

Another idea was put forth by Ed Carr, the administrator of the MetroWest Regional Transit Authority. He suggested creating a special lane along the highway (similar to a high occupancy vehicle, or HOV, lane) that would be restricted to rapid transit buses and trucks carrying freight.

“The cost of laying down rail is exorbitant,” Carr said in a telephone interview after the summit. “This is just rubber tires on asphalt that’s already there.”

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The panelists discussed the possibility of forming public-private partnerships, and to have local businesses collaborate with each other as they try to meet the transportation needs of their employees.

In her keynote speech, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito said transportation plays a key role in building a stronger economy, noting that nonstop commuter rail service between Boston and Union Station in Worcester will debut in May.

The summit was attended by nearly 100 municipal officials and business leaders. Among those in attendance was Stephanie Hirshon, director of the MetroWest/495 Transportation Management Association, a nonprofit that provides commuting solutions for employers in the area.

“In our region, our public transportation options are few,” said Hirshon, in a telephone interview after the summit. “What we try to do is use what is there and maximize it the best we can.”

She said her organization is also exploring the possibility of partnering with Lyft, a ride sharing start-up based in San Francisco.

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Before the summit came to a close, Bluestone told the audience that he thinks tolls and the gas tax should be raised. He also advised the participants to continue to work together and come up with a comprehensive transit plan that can be submitted to state officials.

‘In our region, our public transportation options are few.’

Stephanie Hirshon, MetroWest/495 Transportation Management Association 

The event was sponsored by Mirick O’Connell, a law firm with offices in Westborough, Worcester, and Boston.

“I wouldn’t say that I was surprised, but I was certainly encouraged by the level of interest and enthusiasm in the room,” David McCay, a partner at Mirick O’Connell and chairman of the Southborough Economic Development Committee, said in an e-mail afterward. “Folks universally want to see us making progress on these issues, and the commitment is there in the Boroughs+ to make it happen.”

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.