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Despite low funds, rail line improvements done by ’13

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DEVENS — Business people gathered on a recent Wednesday morning to learn about the state of public transportation in the Nashoba Valley area and plans for its future.

The scene was a meeting of the Nashoba Valley Chamber of Commerce with members in attendance to hear from Mohammed Kahn, regional administrator for the Montachusett Transit Authority.

Kahn opened his remarks noting the progress made toward Montachusett’s goal of providing public transportation from Fitchburg to Boston in under one hour.

To do that, an upgrade of the existing railroad system had to be concluded at an estimated cost of $300 million. But with the full amount not forthcoming from the state, Kahn said the authority had to settle for only $190 million, which permitted payment for the needed upgrades.

The only drawback was that the planned Fitchburg-to-Boston line terminates in Cambridge, where riders need to catch the subway into the hub instead of traveling right into the city.

Another drawback to the Nashoba Valley’s public-transit system has been the failure of locating a much talked about train station in Ayer. There, a parking garage for the downtown was rejected, forcing the authority to seek land elsewhere in town for a parking lot. From there, commuters will have to be shuttled to a platform downtown to catch the train to Boston.

Without a full-fledged train station in the area, the Montachusett Transit Authority has had to rely on a system that combines bus and van service with the hiring of private taxis for individual transportation in Fitchburg.

Currently, said Kahn, vans drive to designated stops and for $12 take riders into Boston for medical appointments. The good news was that for purely local destinations, perhaps a deal could be worked out to charge riders less for a trip.

Kahn himself was introduced by chamber member Peter Lowitt as “the most effective regional transportation administrator in the country,” with a gift for raising cash for projects just when it’s needed the most.

“He has done tremendous things for the Nashoba region,” said Lowitt.

Employed in the area since 1975, Kahn said his first goal was improving train service from Fitchburg to Boston so that travel time is reduced to less than an hour. Although that goal fell short due to funding reasons, Kahn insists that it is still an achievable one.

In the meantime, Kahn said, the authority is working on what he termed “supplemental services” such as vans and mini-buses being made available to communities like Devens, Ayer and Shirley.

Saying that the Nashoba Valley region is growing and will become more reliant on public transportation in the future, Kahn said it’s important that the authority provide connections between local communities and train stations. Unfortunately, with the Boston transportation region taking the lion’s share of state funding, there was little left to do more.

For that reason, ways in which local businesses might contribute came up in discussion. Bristol-Myers Squibb representative Dan Noberini said in other cities, his company is already providing limited transportation services to its employees.

Kahn said more education is needed to help increase people’s awareness of public transportation. Residents have to be made to understand the need for public transportation because without that, there can be no cooperation or support from the public.

With a daily ridership of 150,000, said Kahn, the rest of the state, including the Nashoba Valley region, is dwarfed by that of greater Boston whose riders number over 1 million. Should the numbers of local riders increase, it would raise the odds of Montachusett sharing a bigger piece of the state funding pie.

Kahn was confident that such a time will come, along with a full-fledged train station for the region.

“It’s encouraging to hear that this is really doable,” said Lowitt of a combination public/private transportation scheme. “We just need to figure out how to make it all more effective.”

Kahn ended the meeting on a positive note. He assured chamber members that he expects improvements to the rail system from Fitchburg to Cambridge and a network of shuttle and bus service routes for local communities to be completed and in place by 2013.