August 3, 2006

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Manchester Publisher's Note: Transport for the long-haul
By Jody Reese

Manchester’s public bus system has been in need of a tune-up for a long time.

So it was good news to hear a consultant recently recommend cutting a few non-performing routes and changing the schedules and routes of those that remain to better serve the Queen City.

If the changes are made (it won’t be for a while, and not before city fathers nod in agreement), bus routes will be changed so it’s easier to connect from one line to another at Veterans Park. Also, they’ll be configured so they go out and back rather than in large loops, which are less efficient and waste time.

All of this will make the city’s modest bus system more user-friendly. It’ll be able to serve more people more effectively, and won’t substantially raise costs. As such, it’s one small step on the road to better public transit.

And there’s more good news. Manchester recently took delivery of a six new fuel-efficient buses that are now on streets. They’re smaller than the old converted school buses they replace, and also closer to the ground, which makes it easier for the disabled to use public transportation. But what about the future? What does public transportation offer in terms of possibilities for the greater Manchester region? The answer is quite a lot, potentially, if we’re willing to have the courage to look beyond immediate needs and see transportation infrastructure as a long-term investment.

Just as it costs money to build and maintain new roads, it also costs money to improve bus service or revive passenger rail.

But the reason to do so is not to help a few people give up their cars today. Rather, it’s to inspire tomorrow’s business decision-makers to locate in Manchester, and to keep our economy vibrant well into the 21st century.

In short, economic development follows the transportation network. This isn’t a new concept. It’s been demonstrated again and again all over the world.

In Manchester, just as the airport has turned into an economic engine that has powered regional economic growth, other transportation networks can serve as assets that drive long-term growth and prosperity. The problem in Manchester is that local leaders have traditionally taken a myopic view of public transportation. The local bus system is a good example of this approach in action: rather than invest local money (which in most cases would have been matched 80-20 by federal funds), local politicians for years chose to starve the system into the barebones state that we have today.

If anyone suggested improving the city’s bus system, critics would point to how few people use it and argue it wasn’t worth the bother. Never mind that the reason for low ridership was that the service was inadequate. Because investment wouldn’t bring immediate returns, it would not win support.

This is bad for business and bad for the city, as an inadequate transportation system will make us lose out to more aggressive and forward-thinking communities. If the recent debate over establishing free public bus service between cities in Massachusetts and Manchester-Boston Regional Airport is any indication, this cycle of short-term vision (and long-term neglect) might be changing. City officials are actually open to the idea.

Let’s hope we can keep going in that direction, and make our local transportation something we can be proud of, rather than one for which we have to make excuses.


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