by Alex Guardiola, Vice President of Government Affairs and Public Policy
Worcester is currently in a unique position when it comes to transportation in Massachusetts and in the northeast. As the heart of the Commonwealth, we have three major highways, I-190, I-290 and I-90, as well as two very popular state roads in routes 9 and 20 that run through the city. We have a commuter rail that currently has 17 round trips from Worcester to South Station. We have an airport with three airlines servicing it, and a regional transit system that currently offers fare-free service. While there is great optimism about the future of Worcester’s transportation there are some concerns that we must continue to address with our elected officials on all three levels: municipal, state, and federal.
Worcester Regional Airport
This past April, JetBlue Airlines and Massport made an announcement that many Worcester area residents had been hoping to hear since the pandemic: two new Florida destinations from Worcester. These two destinations are the very popular daily non-stop flights to Orlando International Airport and a winter seasonal service to Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers launching this winter.
The announcement that was made at the Worcester Regional Airport was a sign that the pandemic was over, and it was time to continue the momentum we have been seeing over the past 10-15 years which includes adding more flights and growing the Worcester Airport. At that announcement, the who’s who of elected officials and leaders were there including newly elected Governor Healy and CEO of Massport Lisa Wieland, Congressman Jim McGovern, Chair of the Massport Board Sherriff Lew Evangelidis, Dr. Charles Steinberg of the WooSox, President and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce Tim Murray, and members of the City Council and Worcester State Delegation.
What most did not know while they were popping the proverbial champagne about the announcement of the newly added flights is that JetBlue would no longer be booking direct flights from Worcester Regional Airport to JFK International Airport in New York City after June 14th. This ironically was announced just days after the press conference at the Worcester Airport leaving a feeling of a bait-and-switch move by JetBlue. While you can still fly into JFK using American Airlines, the price points and times are very different. The American Airlines flight leaves Worcester at 1:00PM compared to the 6:30AM flight that was offered by JetBlue. The JetBlue flight allowed folks to find more connecting flights to get you almost anywhere in the world. Further, a roundtrip ticket that would have cost about $150 on JetBlue is now approximately $260 on American Airlines.
To further some of the anxiety that has been caused due to the airline reshuffling, Massport CEO Lisa Wieland has disclosed, in a state ethics filing in June, that she has entered talks with National Grid about leaving her current post to take a job with the energy company. In early August, Wieland confirmed that she will be leaving Massport to take over National Grid’s New England operations. This move could have significant repercussions for the Worcester Regional Airport as Massport continues to negotiate to obtain more flights to and from it as well as new airlines.
If JetBlue is successful in acquiring other Airlines as anticipated, having instability at the helm of Massport could delay those negotiations and Worcester could possibly miss out on being on a short list of medium-sized airports to have new destinations like Chicago, Las Vegas, Raleigh/Durham or New Orleans to name a few. Massport has done a good job since taking over the airport. Obviously, COVID-19 put a halt to some of the progress that was made but we must remain optimistic that the Governor and her team are truly committed to making Worcester a competitive airport to fly in and out of. For anyone who has used the airport, they know how much more convenient it is than having to drive into Boston, pay those high parking prices and probably sit in traffic getting there and back. Folks from all over the state continue to talk about the congestion in and around Boston. Adding more flights that allow folks to travel at more convenient times will help alleviate some of that congestion and probably save them money and the stress of traffic.
MBTA Commuter Rail
Speaking about traffic congestion in Massachusetts, Boston and its 40-mile radius is ranked as the worst city for traffic in the United States and the fourth worst in the World. On average, 164 hours are spent in traffic annually, costing drivers $2,291 according to INRIX, the leading international mobility and transportation analytics company. Worcester and MetroWest commuters are no strangers to heavy traffic during peak hours. Add the headache of the worst traffic in the nation to the costs of tolls and parking and the commuter rail becomes the best alternative for getting in and out of the Capital.
As previously mentioned, Worcester currently has 17 roundtrips to South Station during the week and 10 during the weekend. While there certainly is an appetite for more, the scheduling for these trips has gotten drastically better. In previous years, the schedule was very confusing to grasp as the times were not in any succinct order. Now, the inbound trains from Worcester’s Union Station are every hour on the hour and the same for the roundtrip ride from South Station.
Further, Worcester Union Station is undergoing significant platform, track, and accessibility improvements. Although it’s a key transportation hub for the Worcester area and the terminus of the Framingham/Worcester Line, it’s currently the only station on the route that can serve only one train at a time. The upgrades now underway will improve the station’s function, capacity, level of service, and safety, and make it fully accessible. This four-year project (two design, two construction) is set to be completed in the winter of this year.
What does this mean for commuters? Once the center platform is completed, MBTA will have the ability to dock two trains at Union Station at the same time; meaning that one train can be loaded with travelers while the other train is coming into Union Station. This will cut 6-8 minutes from the commute time for passengers furthering the concept of easy access in and out of the train station.
This project is crucial for Worcester and MetroWest residents as our population continues to grow. Continuing to get vehicles off the road not only helps with our traffic congestion but also helps reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, furthering the city and state’s mission to be a much greener state.
This fall the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce will be hosting its annual Game Changers Business Conference on Friday October 13, 2023. The focus of this year’s event is Rail: Connecting Our Economy. It will focus on rail as being a key transportation piece that is imperative to the movement of goods and people by providing critical connections across the New England region and beyond. The discussion will be surrounded around East/West rail, freight, and the environmental benefits of rail utilization.
East/West Rail is an essential part of connecting all parts of the state to not only Boston but all of New England down to New York City. It has been championed on the Federal level by Congressmen Jim McGovern and Richard Neal who will both be in attendance to discuss the dollars that have been allocated to it through the Federal infrastructure bill.
The Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce has and continues to be and advocate for free fares on all WRTA bus lines. We have worked hard with our community partners free fare concept on a year-to-year basis since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has proven to be a successful initiative as ridership has increased each year since the implementation of free fare. While it has been great to continually extend the initiative, it is time for our municipal, state and federal leaders to find the dollars and resources to make this a permanent program.
We have heard from both the business community and residents about the benefits of free fare. Employers our reporting lower absenteeism and tardiness with this new program. Residents are able to get to their doctor’s appointments and retail stores without having to worry about the cost of their ride being a deterrent and affecting their monthly bottom line.
If we are serious about the future of transportation in Worcester to be successful, we need to continue to work with our elected officials, key stakeholders, and private partnerships to find ways to ensure that Worcester is a HUB as the second largest city in New England in the heart of the Commonwealth. It is crucial to the future of this city and its residents and businesses. We hope that Massport continues to bring new airlines and destinations to the Worcester Regional Airport and the MBTA continues to pursue more options such as a third rail to allow more express trains to Worcester. As the Massachusetts House and Senate have filed their $56.2 Billion budget, it is unfortunate that East/West Rail was not part of that package. While $90 million was allocated to RTA’s across the Commonwealth and $447 million for transportation, including $205 million for the MBTA; we need to continue to advocate for more to ensure that public transportation continues to grow.