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 WASHINGTON DC – Congresswoman Katherine Clark came to Framingham today, March 21, to celebrate a almost $1 million grant to the MetroWest Regional Transit Authority (MWRTA) to help the Authority with its goal to have an electrified fleet.

Today, March 21, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced the first round of grants totaling over $94 million for 59 projects across the country through the new Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART) Grants Program.

Congresswoman Katherine Clark said she received a personal phone call from Secretary Buttigieg informing her that the MetroWest Regional Transit Authority was one of the 59 projects funded.

The MetroWest Regional Transit Authority (MWRTA) is headquartered in Framingham, a part of Minority Whip Clark’s congressional district.

Minority Whip Clark said she doesn’t get many direct calls from Buttigieg. She said it really is a testament to how great the grant proposal. She said the “green energy public transit grant proposal” checked all boxes and aligns with the U.S. Transportation Secretary’s priorities.

The MWRTA grant was called the “BESST” grant, said MWRTA Administrator Jim Nee.

BESST stands for Blandin Energy and Sustainable Storage Technology.

The focus of the grant is to “install solar power and battery banks for on-site energy and to power MWRTA’s fleet.”

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“The primary goal of this project is to provide the infrastructure to transition our demand response fleet to electric vehicles. This is accomplished by generating and storing renewable energy on-site, thereby continuing our mission of a cleaner energy transition, but doing so in a responsible way that bolsters the local electrical grid, rather than being a strain on it,” said Nee to SOURCE.

The almost $1 million grant Nee told Congresswoman Clark, who came to MWRTA HQ this morning, will allow the MWRTA togo from gas to electric over the next several years.

“It’s only possible through these types of programs. And we’re just really excited and wanted to say thank you,” said Nee to Minority Whip Clark.

Four of the 59 projects funded by the Biden-Harris Administration were in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts

The competitive grant program, established by President Biden’s historic Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, provides State, local, and Tribal governments $500 million over five years to leverage technology to create safer, more equitable, efficient, and innovative transportation systems.  

“Every major advancement in the history of U.S. transportation has involved technological progress,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “The investments we are making today are about fostering innovations that improve people’s day-to-day lives, making transportation safer, more reliable, more efficient, and more sustainable.”

“The smart program’s broken up into two phases. This first one is the planning and design work. So we’re going to be getting right to work on phase 2,” explained Nee to Congresswoman Clark.

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“The MWRTA is committed to investments that enhance efficiency and equity within all facets of its operations. The BESST Project represents the next phase of the Authority’s transition to fully sustainable energy solutions that promote environmental justice and modernize infrastructure to protect our region from the harmful effects of climate change. Stage 1 of the BESST Project will involve planning and the procurement of an architect and engineer (A&E), who will carry out design (Stage 1) and construction (Stage 2),” said the MWRTA in its federal grant application.

“This is a 5 year program which is split into 2 stages. This is the first year of the program. Applicants can only apply for Stage 2 if they have been accepted into Stage 1, so this grant award not only pays for the planning and design of the project below, but unlocks the potential to fund the capital cost of building the system in Stage 2,” said MWRTA Administrator Nee. “Given that this is the first year of a 5 year program, we feel very strongly that this award makes our chances for a fund Stage 2 grant very competitive.”

“Stage 1 of The BESST Project will involve the planning, discovery, engineering, and feasibility of new electric infrastructure at the authorities’ primary maintenance and operation facility at 15 Blandin Avenue in Framingham,” wrote MWRTA Grants Manger Joy Glynn in the federal grant application.

“MWRTA will procure the services of an Architectural and Engineering firm to fully study all aspects of integrating a 10 megawatt-hour (MWh) battery backup system, which will allow for overnight charging of an electrified demand service fleet with solar energy collected during the day. The firm will also be asked to design a new solar canopy structure,” wrote Glynn.

The MWRTA “will work with key stakeholders in the city to determine the best possible options, ensuring that plans align well with the city and state plans. Another key component of our phase 1 project will be to obtain and install industrial air quality and atmosphere environmental sensors throughout the exterior of the facility to monitor the presence of greenhouse gases. This rich data source will be used as a baseline to compare improvements made once the Stage 2 project has been completed and will be made available as part of MWRTA’s reporting throughout the two-stage grant process,” wrote Glynn.

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“The BESST project will allow the MWRTA to establish a clear path toward reducing emissions and pilot vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology to reinforce utility integrity within the MetroWest region. Additional EV infrastructure will be available for public use, increasing environmental justice and equity within Framingham’s largest EJ neighborhood,” wrote Glynn.

“BESST Stage 1 will allow the MWRTA to obtain real-world data related to site development and utilization as we build technology capacity and expertise for our long-term energy transition plan. Procuring architect and engineer (A&E) services will enable us to fully design an adequate scope for our BESST system and develop a complete timeline and budget for Stage 2,” wrote Glynn. “In Stage 2, the MWRTA will begin the capital build-out of the project.”

Also assisting Glynn with the grant was Framingham resident Tyler Terrasi, the MWRTA’s Grants Support Coordinator. Both attended the event with Congresswoman Clark today in Framingham.

Congresswoman Clark asked MWRTA administrator Nee what is the greatest need for the MWRTA this morning.

“What our ridership probably needs the most is more support on the operating side when it comes to how frequent our buses come,” said Nee. “As the newest RTA, we have one of the smallest slices at the pie here at the state level. Most of our funding comes at the state level for the operations piece.”

“Many of the more established older RTAs that have been around for 50, 60, 70 years, they’ll have frequencies of 15 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes between trips. Ours averages about 70 minutes between trips. So we got to get that down to sub 45, like a person who can expect of us every half an hour, every 40 minutes rather than every 70 minutes,’ said MWRTA Administrator Nee.

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The MWRTA is a provider of public transportation services within 16 cities and towns in MetroWest. The Authority is based in Framingham. The Authority has occupied its current operations and maintenance hub at 15 Blandin Avenue since July 1, 2015.

“We’re working with our state partners to see if we can get more operating funds there. I’d also say that the temporary operating funds we got from the federal government for COVID was really, a godsend. It really helped this agency through a really difficult period. And as we come out of COVID, we’re seeing that some of our operational expenses that were incurred during COVID are continuing. We’re keeping our facilities and our vehicles more sanitary in the sense that we’re disinfecting more, we’re cleaning more, we’re making sure that our buses are safe for everyone to be on.,” explained Nee to Congresswoman Clark and her staff. “there’s some new operating expenses that didn’t exist prior to COVID as we learned sort of best practices. Obviously the federal COVID dollars that we’re using for operating will come to an end shortly. So we’re hoping that our federal and state partners can help us along the way.”

The MWRTA is also dealing with a bus driver shortage and trying to get new drivers, and seeksto expand routes, too.

And as of May 1, the MWRTA will begin collecting fares again, something that was eliminated during the pandemic.

The MWRTA is also helping to get students to school, as the Framingham Public Schools deals with a severe bus driver shortage.

In the middle of March, and the district is short even more bus drivers that at the start of the school year in August. In August, the district had 60 drivers for 77 contracted routes with NRT bus company. In Mid-March that number has shrunk to about 55 bus drivers for 77 routes.

MWRTA Community Outreach Manager Jon Fetherston has been working with the public school district in Framingham to help get middle and high school students without a bus to and from school.

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Fetherston told Congresswoman Clark this morning that during COVID MWRTA was working and operating.

“We never missed a day we were here. And the good thing about it is we saved lives by doing it because if you couldn’t get out, we were your only option to get out. And Metro West is such a unique area. There’s a lot of wealth, there’s a lot of social injustice areas and what has been proven during COVID, how important public transportation was,” said Fetherston, who said the MWRTA was the only transportation option for many in South Framingham.

“Cause if the public transportation didn’t exist, the numbers would’ve been even more devastated. So it has shown that there’s so much more work that needs to be done for letting people know about public transportation, access to public transportation. So I look at it as it’s more work to do, but it’s actually exposed some real good opportunities for us. I think it’s important as you and your leadership role know that public transportation, it’s a way of life. It saves lives. It affects lives, it impacts people’s lives. And we’ve got a great team here and we do a lot of work, but we’ve got a lot more work,” said Fetherston.

To maintain a reliable and resilient public transportation system, the MWRTA has retrofitted the facility with innovative technology emphasizing safety, modernization, climate, and equity. All vehicles utilized for fixed route service operate on compressed natural gas (CNG). The MWRTA maintains a CNG fueling station at its facility, as well as a 228 KW solar canopy to fully offset facility energy needs.

Ultimately, the MWRTA intends to achieve full electrification of its demand service fleet, which is used to provide ADA paratransit, Dial a Ride, and microtransit service, explained Nee.

U.S. Department of Transportation said the 59 grants will support a diverse array of topics and communities: 

  • Five State DOTs are working on projects that will improve safety for workers and drivers in work zones, including a multi-state collaboration that will deploy Automated Truck-Mounted Crash Attenuators, and projects that will leverage the Work Zone Data Exchange (WZDx) Specification. Additionally, over a dozen other SMART projects address worker safety.
  • A number of projects will help improve transit reliability, speed, and fare payment, making the experience more seamless for riders. Projects in Alabama, Georgia, Connecticut, and New York will focus on transit innovation with investments in data integration, transit incentives, and accessibility tools. 
  • The City of Cleveland and others will demonstrate smart traffic signal technologies including Automated Traffic Signal Performance Measures and transit and emergency vehicle signal priority.
  • Cities across the U.S. including Buffalo, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Portland will leverage sensors and data to help cities understand and improve curb management practices by allocating their curb space to best serve local businesses, facilitate deliveries, and integrate with transit and active transportation.
  • Communities in Maine, Colorado, and Massachusetts will focus on smart grid projects to prepare their communities for more widespread adoption of electric vehicles including cars, buses, and aircraft and ground vehicles at airports. 
  • Sensor deployments will enable new data collection and operational approaches, ranging from a flood warning system in Harris County, Texas, to crash detection in Nashville, to improved safety at Seattle’s at-grade rail crossings.
  • Uncrewed Aircraft Systems (UAS) projects will leverage innovative aviation technology for infrastructure inspections in Alaska, California, and Kansas, as well as medical package deliveries along Virginia’s Eastern Shore and in the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation.
  • The Michigan Department of Transportation and Whatcom Council of Governments will integrate sensors and data to facilitate commerce at international border crossings, strengthening supply chains, reducing delays, and minimizing congestion impacts in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest.
  • Connected vehicle projects in states including Arizona, Michigan, Texas, and Utah will deploy connectivity demonstrations that focus on topics like transit prioritization and safety for pedestrians and cyclists. 

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By editor

Susan Petroni is the former editor for SOURCE. She is the founder of the former news site, which as of May 1, 2023, is now a self-publishing community bulletin board. The website no longer has a journalist but a webmaster.