Friday, February 18, 2011

Worcester Airport Access, The Smurfs and Kool-Aid

Bill's blog has a recent post about ORH that mentions that apparently Massport thinks the only way ORH will be a success is if an access road to the airport is built.

From what I hear, the idea of an access road along existing MA Route 56 in Leicester and connecting to the Mass Pike at a new interchange in Oxford seems to be the most popular (least worst?) option up for consideration.

Map Showing Author's Guess as to Location of Proposed Route 56 Access Road Between the Mass Pike and ORH (Blue) and the Proposed AIRLINE Bus Rapid Transit System (Red)
I'm not drinking the blue Kool-Aid.

I see the positives in the Route 56 Access Road idea. I admit it would be relatively inexpensive to build a road along this route as it travels mostly through undeveloped areas of Leicester and it would provide easy access to the airport for the targeted Metrowest leisure travels I understand we want to target. My biggest concern, however, is that wherever this access path is built (I prefer to use the term path as opposed to road - road to most people has come to mean only autos and trucks, while the term path seems to encompass a wider variety of methods for getting around, including autos and truck, but also public transit, biking, etc.), opportunities for economic development will follow. 100's of travelers moving along this path on a daily basis will create demand for dining, retail, entertainment, lodging and numerous other goods and services. A path through Leicester most likely means the loss of thousands of acres of countryside to just more suburban sprawl, which I certainly could do without.

There's a unique opportunity here, with an access path connecting I-290 at Union Station to ORH, to bring hundreds of travelers a day into downtown Worcester to experience dining, retail, entertainment, lodging and numerous other goods and services before and/or after their flight. The Worcester path issue does not seem to be an issue of getting to or traveling along I-290 itself, but the issue is how does one get from I-290 to ORH? In the AIRLINE BRT proposal, those traveling by car along I-290 would exit at the existing MLK Jr. Blvd. exit, park their cars in the Union Station garage, and jump on a bus that would travel along a dedicated ROW with limited stops, dropping them off at the front door of ORH in less than 20 minutes.

I anticipate that many will react to the BRT model by saying that we need an access road because Worcester is a driving town, with public transit being used by a very small percentage of the population. In general I agree with this, as it is my experience that the concept of riding the WRTA on a regular basis for work or shopping is a foreign concept in a majority of resident's minds. That being said, I believe the AIRLINE BRT could be an exception to this general rule and the start of a change in attitude towards public transit in Worcester. The reason for this is that there is already an expectation by the general airline traveling population that they will likely use at least one, if not two or three forms of public transportation as a part of their travel experience. When I fly out of PVD, I park in the long term lot and guess what I board to get to the terminals? A bus! I've used buses at countless airports, and have also utilized subways, monorails and light rail cars and that Star Wars like people mover 'lounge' they use at Dulles. Viewed in this light, the AIRLINE BRT path as a substitute for an access road does not seem too far fetched to me.

Since 1875, when the original Union Station was constructed, through 1975, 100's of visitors and residents arrived in and departed from Worcester on a daily basis through Union Station's doors. The city restored the building to it's original grandeur in 2000, when once again train passengers, and a few years later, intercity bus passengers arrived in/departed from Worcester through Union Station's doors. I understand there are plans in the works to move the WRTA local bus hub from City Hall to Union Station within the next few years.  The economic development opportunities available to Worcester in general (and downtown and AIRLINE neighborhoods such as the Junction District, Main South, South Worcester and Webster Square in particular) by selecting Union Station as the local gateway for ORH travelers could potentially be tremendous, and the synergies available with all of the already in place or planned modes of transportation at Union Station are even more exciting.

Anyone for a cup of the red Kool-Aid?

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