By Mary Kate Feeney
FRAMINGHAM – Driving through Framingham Centre one afternoon, it occurred to me: traffic is coming back.
The lack of traffic caused by people staying home due to the pandemic is slowly coming to an end. As I watched the cars back up on Route 9, I wondered why Framingham isn’t taking this once in a generation opportunity to really do something about how we get around our city.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Framingham was in the midst of great, progressive change as it grew from a farming community to an urban municipality.
The civic and business leaders of the day seized every opportunity to invest in Framingham’s infrastructure to meet the needs of its growing population of 10,000 people, and its new and expanding businesses.
They straightened and leveled the roads to accommodate the new trendy modes of getting around town: the bicycle and the trolley. There were 600 registered bicycles in 1892. By 1900, electric trolleys were criss-crossing the town, bringing shoppers to Downtown and workers to the mills in Saxonville.
You could get about anywhere in Framingham with ease and not need a horse to do it.
It is the foresight and ambition of our forebears we need to embrace today. In a world without the automobile, they knew public transportation was about moving people around.
More than a century has passed and, today, the car is king of the road, yet we find ourselves at the same crossroads of change.
While it is too soon to say what our post-pandemic lives will look like, I imagine our normal 9-5 Monday through Friday commute and traditional traffic patterns will change. With change presents great opportunity.
The Spicer Administration needs to seize this moment. Now is the time to rethink not just how cars drive down our streets, but how pedestrians, bicycles, scooters, wheelchairs and buses co-exist on those streets.
Picture this: a transportation hub at the newly renovated Pearl Street Garage, operated by the MetroWest Regional Transportation Authority (MWRTA), where Greyhound buses bring people on roundtrips from New York City or commuters get off the train and onto a MWRTA bus to their home or workplace. A hub where you can rent a bike or scooter and ride down a bike lane to Jack’s Abbey for an afternoon with friends or bike down Union Avenue and leave your bike at the hub while you grab dinner at one of the restaurants Downtown.
As you travel around Framingham, you’d find updated streetscapes with ADA compliant sidewalks and bike lanes. MWRTA buses operating expanded routes. Charging stations for electric vehicles available around town for easy access while you shop at a local small business.
What a game changer!
How do we get there? First, bring together business and nonprofit leaders to the table, partner with our state and federal delegations, and craft a creative, strategic plan for what we want Framingham to look like in the future.
We already have a great partner in Senate President Karen Spilka, who has used her platform to push for investments and bold ideas on how we get around. In the Transportation Bond Bill signed by Governor Baker last week, nearly $22 million is allotted to Framingham transportation needs.
It includes funds for a Downtown traffic study, electric charging stations, adaptive signal controls for Route 30, radar street signs, pedestrian safety measures and $8 million for “the purchase, construction, rehabilitation of a downtown parking structure near commuter rail.” Gee, wonder what this is for?
Right now, the Pearl Street Garage, used to store city vehicles, is in disrepair. Yet, it’s filled with potential. The city should transfer the garage to the Economic Development and Industrial Corporation. Then the EDIC can negotiate the sale to the MWRTA, who operate the parking lots around the commuter rail station. The MWRTA has expressed an interest in the garage.
The Commonwealth has given us the resources. The Spicer Administration needs a plan and to engage with local experts, like transit visionary Ed Carr from the MWRTA, on reimagining our transit.
130 years ago, Framingham’s leaders saw the world evolving and adapted. As we emerge from the darkness of the coronavirus pandemic, time is right to change what no longer works.
The pieces of a new transit future are aligning – it is up to Framingham’s leaders to take advantage of it.
Mary Kate Feeney, a resident of Pheasant Hill, is a former aide to Governor Deval L. Patrick.