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Study: Ride from Nashoba Valley among state's worst

Nashoba Valley residents spend more time on average traveling to and from work each day than the rest of the state, with workers in Groton, Townsend, Dunstable and Pepperell bearing the brunt of the commute.

According to a new study being released tomorrow, the one-way 36.4-minute commute from Townsend is the worst in the region and the 15th worst in the state.

Lowell residents had the shortest commute in the region – 24.3 minutes, followed closely by Billerica.

The Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute, and Mass Housing conducted the report, Mass.Commuting. The report breaks down the average commute time for residents in every Massachusetts community. It shows that the state ranks ninth in the nation in terms of average commuting time.

“For average families, commuting is a critical quality-of-life issue,” said Ian Bowles, president and chief executive officer of MassINC. “As a community, we need to turn our attention to the complex causes of long commutes. If we don’t, quality of life in Massachusetts appears likely to erode further – and this in turn hurts our competitiveness and ability to attract and retain the nation’s most skilled work force.”

According to the report, the statewide average commute time increased by 19 percent from 1990 to 2000 from 22.7 minutes to 27 minutes, costing the equivalent of 25 work days lost in transit.

For Greater Lowell residents, the commute jumped from 23.1 minutes each way in 1990 to 27.8 minutes in 2000 for a 20 percent increase.

The increase was largely driven by the high commute times in the northwest suburbs, which was identified as one of five “commuting hot spots” in the state.

The commute time represents how long it takes workers to travel one way, whether it’s by car, public transportation, bike, taxi cab or on foot.

The hot spots are located where workers in clusters of adjoining communities bear, on average, particularly long commutes, the report says.

One such hot spot is in the Nashoba Valley and comprises Dunstable, Groton, Pepperell, Townsend, Ashby, Ashburnham, Roylaston and Winchendon. The other hot spots are in Western Massachusetts hill communities, the Quabbin region, Metro West-495 South and the coastal South Shore.

About 27 percent of the commuters in the Nashoba Valley hot spot have a commute of at least 45 minutes each way – a figure much higher than the state average of 18 percent.

In 2000, nearly one in five commuters statewide – 551,000 – spent at least 45 minutes getting to work each way, up from 290,000 in 1980.

The study provides a comprehensive demographic profile of these long commuters and finds that they are typically higher-income households, with higher levels of education and more likely to own a home.

While traffic congestion would seem a likely cause of a long commute, researchers said the problem in the Nashoba Valley is more complex.

“The Nashoba Valley hot spot reflects a lack of jobs nearby and a lack of road capacity,” said Dana Ansel, a MassINC researcher.

With no job center close by, residents in Groton, Pepperell, Townsend and Dunstable have to travel a long distance to work and highways are not easily accessible.

Bonnie Biocchi, executive director of the Nashoba Valley Chamber of Commerce, said there is no easy solution. She said workers have chosen to forgo short commutes so they can live in more desirable communities or afford larger homes.

And while congestion may not be the only problem, Biocchi said anyone traveling from Townsend on Route 119 in the morning through Groton knows it’s a big part of it.

“That’s probably the main factor – there are a lot more people trying to get places,” Biocchi said.

And the problem is there are few options for people living in those communities, she said. The commuter rail does not pass through those communities and there is no easy access to Route 2 or Interstate 495.

In the entire region, 18.8 percent of commuters traveled more than 45 minutes each way, slightly higher than the state average.

In 2000, just 2.4 percent of the area’s commuters used public transit. The report showed that communities on the Lowell and Fitchburg rail lines saw a usage as high as 3 percent, while towns not on the line saw little use.

The report finds that more cars and greater distances traveled partly account for the lengthening commutes. The number of car registrations in Massachusetts jumped by 48 percent from 1992 to 2002.

The average distance traveled by commuters increased by about 10 percent from 1990 to 2000.

While it may be an easy problem to identify, solving the traffic crunch is a complex task, researchers said. The reasons vary for long commutes throughout the state, said Michael Goodman, director of Economic and Public Policy Research for the UMass Donahue Institute and co-author of the report. For some commuters, traffic congestion leads to long travel times while distance is the problem for others.

However, those who choose to live near employment areas in Greater Boston are forced to spend a growing portion of their income on the higher cost of living, such as housing, he said.

“Extending economic opportunities to other regions of the state would provide these workers with more choices of where to live and work and make it more likely that they will stay in Massachusetts,” Goodman said.

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