UML Buses Now Take Shorter, Faster Routes on Pawtucket Street

A student walks across a bridge as a campus shuttle bus approaches Image by Ed Brennen
In addition to a wider sidewalk for pedestrians, the new Northern Canal bridge on East Campus can support UML buses, which no longer have to detour through congested neighborhoods.

By Ed Brennen

Last semester, first-year English major Amania Galloway gave herself at least a half-hour each day to travel by River Hawk Roadster bus from University Suites on East Campus to her classes on South Campus.

Now that the city of Lowell and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation have finished replacing two bridges that span canals along Pawtucket Street, students like Galloway are finding it much faster to get around campus.

“With the new bridges, I can catch the bus maybe 15 minutes before class and still get there on time. I have more time to get ready in the morning,” Galloway said on a recent Friday while waiting on East Campus for a Red Line shuttle bus — a line that she takes as many as three times a day.

After more than three years of construction, the Northern Canal bridge on East Campus and the Pawtucket Canal bridge between University Crossing and South Campus recently reopened to vehicles.

Part of the larger Lowell Canal Bridges Project, their replacement was funded by a $13.4 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which the city secured in partnership with the university. UML also contributed $3 million to the project.

“It is exciting to see the new canal bridges along Pawtucket Street improving campus connectivity and reducing barriers to travel between campuses,” says Adam Baacke, executive director of planning, design and construction. “This is an excellent example of a healthy partnership with the city, MassDOT and the federal DOT achieving the intended objectives that were proposed when we helped draft the TIGER grant application.”

A white UML bus drives across a canal bridge Image by Ed Brennen
A Red Line shuttle bus crosses the recently reopened Pawtucket Canal bridge en route to South Campus.

Due to weight restrictions, university buses could not drive over the old canal bridges and had to be routed through the city’s Acre neighborhood. The replacement bridges have allowed Transportation Services to streamline its two busiest routes — the Blue and Red lines — down Pawtucket Street, which means they can also make more trips each day.

The Blue Line, which has four buses running simultaneously between North Campus, UCrossing and South Campus, has been reduced from a 5.1-mile loop that took 30 minutes to a 3.8-mile loop that now takes 20 minutes.

The Red Line, which has three buses running from East Campus to South Campus, has been reduced from 3.8 miles every 20 minutes to 2.5 miles every 16 minutes.

While shaving a few minutes off each route “doesn’t sound like a lot,” Executive Director of Administrative Services Nicholas Piscitello says it adds up when you consider that the buses run continuously for 11 hours each weekday, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“It’s the equivalent of adding a full bus to each line,” says Piscitello, who notes that one bus costs the university around $150,000 each year with its contractor, NRT Bus.

A student and a car cross a canal bridge with UML buildings in the background Image by Ed Brennen
The new Northern Canal bridge on East Campus was made possible by a $13.4 million TIGER grant the city of Lowell and UML received from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The shorter, more efficient routes also have environmental benefits, according to Ruairi O’Mahony, executive director of the Rist Institute for Sustainability and Energy, as buses no longer idle in traffic on side streets, which will help to lower emissions.

There’s also hope that by taking the bus down Pawtucket Street, students will realize that South Campus is only three-quarters of a mile from University Crossing and be more apt to walk or bike the route — a goal of the Pawtucket Greenway project.

“Pawtucket Street is essentially the spine of our campus,” says Karina Cruz, assistant director of parking and transportation. “We want to make that entire stretch feel like campus, to improve the walkability and bikeability for students.”

After walking through the construction zone on the Northern Canal bridge last fall, Galloway welcomed the finished product, which includes sidewalks on both sides of a one-way vehicle lane heading from East Campus to University Crossing.

“The walking and bus commutes are both better,” says Galloway, who is from Methuen, Massachusetts, and has a concentration in journalism and professional writing. “The bus ride is definitely smoother. It wasn’t the best commute on the back routes, with tighter roads and a lot of traffic.”

The Lowell Canal Bridges Project also includes repairs to the Central Street bridge over the Lower Pawtucket Canal downtown, which has resulted in a detoured route for the Yellow Line bus service for students living at the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center. That work is expected to be completed in spring 2023.