Boston's traffic snarl; Commuters ride subways, vans, boats to beat the expressway blues

Somewhere in the Monday morning traffic on the Southeast Expressway, Jack Foley and his 14 passengers roll slowly toward their downtown office building. Some read. Some doze. Others just listen to soft music from an FM radio station, as Jack peers out patiently from behind the wheel. A licensed driving instructor in his own right, he says he takes ''the conservative approach'' to coping with traffic.

That's just as well. All around him the expressway is choked with inbound vehicles, although he has been on the road since 6:45 a.m.

But while they are stuck in the same traffic jam as the thousands of other commuters, Jack Foley and his riders are part of the solution, not the problem. They may not reach the office early on this particular morning, but they're convinced the future is on their side.

They are one of 130 van pools organized by a four-year-old private, nonprofit company, CARAVAN for Commuters Inc., one of several that serve people who live or work in Massachusetts. CARAVAN, which operates under contract with the state Department of Public Works (DPW), will have 20 to 30 more van pools on the road by Christmas, according to marketing specialist Jean Amato. It's also about ready to offer the public a computerized service that matches riders to car pools.

She thinks the potential for van- and car-pool growth here is unlimited. People ''are going to reach their breaking point'' soon, she says.

These are not happy times for commuters to this self-described ''world class'' city. Fair weather or foul, their daily trips are regularly slowed to a crawl by the sheer volume of traffic. In a recent ''race'' staged by a local television station, one driver who works at a Boston engineering firm was beaten to his office by a fellow employee who lives in the same distant suburb but rides a bicycle. Both men left home at exactly the same time.

Unless many commuters change their routines, the problem seems destined to grow worse next year.

Beginning in the spring, a two-year, $65 million overhaul of the Southeast Expressway, the major north-south route through the city, will test the endurance of even the most experienced commuters.

In many respects, they have no one but themselves to blame. With the oil embargoes of the 1970s only a distant memory and the economy healthy, many of these commuters have reverted to an old habit: driving to work alone.

On the expressway alone, 85 percent of the vehicles making the trip into Boston hold only the driver, according to DPW estimates. Built in the late 1950s to carry 75,000 vehicles a day, that roadway now handles closer to 160,000 - about 50,000 of those during each of the peak commuting periods.

Commuting to the major metropolitan centers of southern New England - especially Boston, Providence, R.I., and Hartford and Stamford, Conn. - is seldom easy under the best of circumstances. The cities are congested, the roads that serve them are old, and parking inside the city limits often is scarce.

Building booms in Boston and Hartford and the relocation of major corporate headquarters from New York City to Stamford only threaten to increase the strain on these facilities. As a concession to Boston commuters from the north, tolls now are collected only inbound on their trips via the Mystic-Tobin Bridge and Sumner Tunnel, to try to speed up traffic flow. Still, there are delays.

Other methods of easing traffic congestion, such as building a third tunnel under Boston Harbor and relocating the infamous Central Artery underground, are still in the proposal stage. It will be years before ground is broken, and the combined project is estimated to cost a whopping $2.2 billion.

Traffic in New England, says Jim Womack, a research associate at the MIT's Center for Transportation Studies, is best characterized as ''a few hot spots and a lot of other areas that work extraordinarily well.

''I think we're winning the battle to offer people the options they ought to have,'' Dr. Womack says, ticking off alternative modes of transportation such as ride-sharing, subways, commuter rail, bus service, and commuter boats.

''Is there going to be a stampede to share the ride? As an academician, I have to say no. But to the extent that the roads get worse, it's going to work.''

Jack Foley, for one, wishes he'd tried van pooling years ago. In exchange for driving the van and collecting the monthly ridership charges from his passengers , his transportation is free.

''It's just a matter of convenience,'' he says. ''I've got to get to work anyway. If the others want to go along for the ride, that's fine.''

According to Jean Amato of CARAVAN, there are many others who want to go along for the ride, too - including some who live more than 100 miles from their workplace. To help spread the word, 140 new signs are scheduled to go up along key highways next month calling attention to the program.

''We're at least 40 percent cheaper than driving,'' she says, ''and we're cheaper than parking. The people in a group may change, but in most cases we're able to keep the van on the road.''

DPW spokesman Bill Pizzano says his agency is engaged in a ''massive effort'' to promote commuter alternatives before the expressway project begins in March. Meetings with citizens of such suburban bedroom communities as Hingham, Braintree, Pembroke (where Jack Foley lives), and Scituate are being held to alert commuters to the perils of driving to Boston alone once the work crews move in.

The DPW estimates that 2,000 cars an hour will need to be diverted from the expressway during the peak commuter periods until the project is finished.

''If people cooperate, we'll get through this without - I hope - major chaos, '' Mr. Pizzano says.

He sees positive signs that many commuters are sincerely interested in leaving their own cars in the suburbs and easing the traffic burden. In the last few years the DPW has built 13 ''park and ride'' lots with spaces for 1,600 cars in eastern Massachusetts.

''As soon as we are finished with the work, they're filled,'' Pizzano says. The DPW has identified 10 other locations with room for 1,500 cars that can be leased and opened to the public.

At that, the Massachusetts park-and-ride program is way behind Connecticut's. The latter offers 200 lots (165 of them paved) with 25,650 spaces.

Surveys indicate that the average commute to these lots is six miles, according to George Beebe, supervisor of the ride-sharing program for the Connecticut Department of Transportation. After parking, however, the average distance traveled is 28 miles.

''What is impressive is that the people who most need to be matched up [in a ride-sharing program] are those who live the longest distances away,'' notes Dr. Womack of MIT. ''The long-distance commuter is really a glutton. He burns incredible amounts of fuel. And he's probably not very happy.''

As of last August, Connecticut also had a wide lead in the number of registered van pools: 1,167, according to Mr. Beebe. These are arranged through public-private partnership ''brokerages'' in three areas - Hartford, Stamford, and New Haven. In the ranks of state-government alone, 58 percent of the employees participate in car or van pools, he says.

''But we don't know what the potential market is,'' Beebe adds. ''[And] it's not the only thing that'll solve the problem.''

In Hartford, employers pay $12 million a year in parking subsidies, the ride-sharing supervisor says. Reducing these subsidies, eliminating some free parking in company lots, and offering employees flexible working hours also are needed to help ease traffic, he says, because ''there aren't going be that many highway improvements in the future that aren't already there.''

Rhode Island is not making great progress toward ride-sharing, according to state coordinator Robert Afflick. He says ''close to 40'' van pools have been arranged by the state Department of Transportation, not counting others that are privately run. But the average trip to work in Rhode Island is less than 10 miles, and ''companies don't like government telling them what to do,'' he adds.

Mr. Afflick, who works at the project alone, says the transportation department will survey any company that wishes to explore ride-sharing. But it is not equipped to match commuters for that purpose, except individually over the telephone.

Providence offers ample parking downtown, Afflick says, ''and it's very difficult to get those people out of their vehicles and into ride-sharing. We're not making big strides; maybe a half-step forward or a quarter-step forward. But if there's another energy crisis, we feel we'll be well-positioned to deal with it.''

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