- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 17, 2019

LUDLOW, Mass. (AP) - Every weekday morning, Laura Lee’s alarm goes off at 4 a.m. She leaves her house in Hampden at 5 to meet a van pool in Ludlow. She and the other commuters drive to Boston, put in a full day of work, and meet the van to return home.

Lee gets home at 7 p.m. on a good day, leaving her only a couple of hours before it’s time to go to sleep so she can do it all again the next day.

At 60 years old, Lee said, “I’m too young to retire and way too old to be doing this.”

The van pool is a symbol of the disparate economies in eastern and Western Massachusetts, and the lack of transportation between the two, said state Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow.

“This is a living, breathing manifestation of what’s wrong with our economy in Massachusetts right now,” said Lesser, who rode in the van pool on Wednesday to call attention to the plight of Western Massachusetts commuters.

Lesser is a staunch advocate for creating a passenger rail link between Boston and Springfield. The state Department of Transportation is studying the feasibility of the idea.

The group of van commuters - around six these days, down from nearly a dozen a year ago - meet each morning at 5:30 a.m. in the parking lot of a Ludlow McDonald’s, off Exit 7 of the Massachusetts Turnpike. They get to Boston around two hours later, depending on traffic and weather.

The van leaves Boston at 4:30 p.m. and the crew arrives around 6:30 in Ludlow, where they pick up their cars and head home to Springfield, Chicopee or Hampden.

The group takes turns driving, and they split the cost of renting the van from Enterprise and parking in a Boston garage. They pay a little over $300 a month, which is less than the $363 a month they would pay if they drove to Worcester and took the commuter rail.

The commuters work in finance and for federal and state government. They have different reasons that keep them in Western Massachusetts even as their jobs are in Boston.

Lee, who works for the state, used to work in Springfield. But the Springfield office closed in 2016, and she was given a choice to relocate to Lawrence, Brockton or Boston.

Lee used to live in eastern Massachusetts and considered moving to the North Shore, but housing was too expensive. She likes the Hampden area.

Initially, she worked in Lawrence and stayed with a friend in Burlington from Sunday night through Friday. When the Lawrence office closed 13 months ago, she started commuting to Boston in the van.

Lee is considering taking a break from the van and again staying with her friend to avoid the constant sleep deprivation.

Although her children are grown and out of the house, the time lost with her husband, she said, is “precious time you won’t get back.” Lee rarely sees her elderly mother because she does not want to drive to New York on the weekend.

Lee is looking for a job in Western Massachusetts, but cannot find anything comparable. She has worked for the state for 17 years and will get additional pension benefits if she stays.

“None of us are young (in the van), and none of us can get jobs near home that are comparable,” Lee said.

One woman Lesser interviewed on the trip said the commute has gotten worse in the 10 years she has been doing it. The van used to return to Ludlow 15 minutes earlier every day. Their experience fits in with statistics showing that traffic is worsening in the state.

The van illustrates the need for high-speed rail between Boston and Springfield, Lesser said. It also highlights the potential of another bill he has proposed, which would pay people up to $10,000 to move to Western Massachusetts and work remotely.

Lesser said it is a problem if the economy is so concentrated in Boston that people have to spend 20 hours a week in transit in order to work.

“That’s terrible and completely preventable in 21st century America,” he said.

Online: https://bit.ly/2Dir2gy


Information from: The Springfield (Mass.) Republican, http://www.masslive.com/news/

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