Transportation transformation in Metrowest

By Brittney McNamara | Wicked Local | July 23, 2015

There’s a vision for downtown Framingham and it looks a little something like Somerville. Town Manager Bob Halpin hopes to make the area vibrant, but mostly convenient as a hub for the young workforce. None of that can happen, however, without a way to get around.

Halpin is focused on transit-oriented development, or bringing amenities and apartments to an area with a train and bus system to boost the local economy. With the MetroWest and Milford area population aging, some say bringing in better transportation will be key to keeping MetroWest towns thriving, as Halpin hopes to do.

In Middlesex County, the median age of residents is about 38, while in Worcester County it’s about 39. In towns such as Southborough, the median age is about 42, compared to Boston’s 31.

Barry Bluestone, director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University, said Massachusetts is one of the leading states in the nation as far as an aging population, meaning many towns in the area face a workforce that will soon be retiring. As the main population ages out of work, Bluestone said it’s imperative towns think about how to attract and keep young people to fill jobs. One of the best ways, he said, is transportation.

“I think the answer is a lot of young people. … They are using mass transit, they’re walking, they’re biking. When my son graduated (from college), I tried to give him as a graduation gift an old car. He basically said, ‘dad, what would I ever do with a car?’” Bluestone said. “To the extent people can walk to work or bike to work … those communities are going to be more and more attractive to young people.”

In Framingham, Halpin hopes to make that the reality. The first step, he said, is asking Town Meeting to increase the raise the ceiling on population density downtown to allow for a new apartment complex. Then come improvements in walkability, like improving sidewalks and clearing a safe route from the train station for pedestrians. Then, Halpin hopes restaurants, cafes and other businesses young people frequent will move in, drawing even more young workers to town.

“We’re expecting to bring rezoning of the central business district to fall Town Meeting in October. We’re looking to increase the density within a five- to- 10-minute walk of the commuter rail station,” Halpin said. “It looks to attract a younger, millennial generation looking for something a little less automobile dependent.”

The young working population, Bluestone said, is most likely to look for alternative options to get to work.

“People at different ages use different transportation modes,” he said. “The older generation uses cars overwhelmingly. (They) will be retiring. Who will be replacing us are people who are less likely to use the roads.”

Halpin said transit oriented development is in part responsible for the now buzzing economy in Somerville and is making inroads in communities like Lowell, Worcester and Haverhill. Franklin planning director Bryan Taberner said transit oriented development is a big part in any revitalization plan where there’s train access, like in his town.

With more communities looking to attract young people through alternative transportation options, Bluestone said there could be a shift in how people get work.

“If that’s so, we’re going to reverse an age-old development concept that we’ve had, which is that people follow jobs,” he said. “Firms will be so desperate for young people they’ll move to where young people are.”

Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, said MetroWest and the Milford area are already hubs that attract business. With improved transportation and a better ability to retain young workers, she said, that could continue to grow as Bluestone predicts.

“I do believe the economy and transportation are integrally intertwined,” Spilka said. “I think that we can bring a lot of young people out here for the businesses that are well established. Others (will come) with the startups. We’re developing a strong (startup) cluster in these areas.”

Spilka said the continued expansion of the MetroWest Regional Transportation Authority bus routes will help move residents around. Coupled with a stronger commuter rail and train service, Bluestone said allowing MetroWest and Milford residents to get around without a car is what will bring the kind of change Halpin hopes for.

Brittney McNamara can be reached at 508-490-7463 or by email at bmcnamara@wickedlocal.com. Follow her on Twitter at @bmcnamara_MW.

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