Regional transit authorities in crisis: Western Massachusetts copes with inadequate funding

Roxbury Crossing MBTA station located on Tremont Street in Roxbury. (BU News Service File Photo)

By Lillian Ilsley-Greene
BU News Service

Each year, the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority serves over 600,000 people. Tory Dixon, an advocate at Stavros Options Counselors in Amherst, which assists people with disabilities and the elderly, is one of them.

Dixon uses crutches and recently started using an electric scooter. In the past year, as she stopped driving and relied more heavily on her scooter, she has depended on PVTA paratransit vans to get to and from work, home and medical appointments. Dixon says the burden of making the system work falls on the customer.

“At first, it wasn’t bad,” Dixon said. “I wasn’t late to things right away. But lately, it’s gotten really, really bad. I’ve been late to doctors’ appointments, they get me late to work.” 

Dixon has missed medical appointments, been dropped at work in the early hours of cold winter days, and been left standing in her doorway by van drivers paid to take her to where she needs to go. Sometimes, they just don’t show up.

“They blame it on the fact that they don’t have enough drivers,” Dixon said of the regional transit authority. “What are you doing to do?”

In February, the nonprofit A Better City reported that transit in the commonwealth will experience a funding gap of $8.4 billion over the next 10 years, leaving the state of transit systems in Massachusetts further from a standard set by the Federal Transit Administration to ensure well maintained and reliable transit infrastructure. This number exceeds current expansion budget plans and covers service repair backlogs across the state, Tom Ryan, director of public policy and government affairs at A Better City, wrote in an email.

“Absent adequate funding … borrowing will increase anew, adding to the financial burdens of future generations, [and] system operations will deteriorate at a time of substantial population and economic growth in Massachusetts,” wrote Ryan.

Transit systems across the state are already suffering, as cuts in recent years to regional transit authority (RTA) funding have devastated local communities, said Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, Senate vice chairman of the Legislature’s transportation committee.

“It was a massive fight last year just to keep the funding level,” Lesser said.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget for fiscal year 2019 allocated $80.4 million to RTAs, an increase of $400,000 from the previous year. Without additional money, fares rise, service is cut, and communities and transit systems suffer, Lesser said.

“[The PVTA] serves a population that does not have another option, if their access ends. It largely serves a population of low-income people and people of color who are facing sustainable disadvantages, and hardships,” Lesser said. “This is a lifeline for them.” 

No clear solutions 

The PVTA receives over 50 percent of its funding from the governor’s budget in the form of state contract assistance, according to Administrator Sarah Sheehan. Regional transit authorities were established in 1974 by Chapter 161B of the Massachusetts General Laws and since then have been funded in majority by state assistance, route income, and Federal Transit Authority grants. In 2016 and 2017, the PVTA budget stretched over $45 million. In both years, costs outspent funding sources by over $2 million.

“I think we’re reaching a crisis point in transportation, really statewide,” Lesser said. “We just see our infrastructure quite literally collapsing in many cases.” 

With no solution, and no additional funding, the PVTA has continued to run deficits upwards of $800,000 in fiscal years 2018 and 2019. Last year, the PVTA received some stabilizing funds included in the budget as discretionary funding. This year offers no such luxury, Sheehan said.

“Right now we are preparing a budget that will have a deficit,” Sheehan said.

The result is cuts to service. In the past two years, the PVTA Advisory Board has worked to continue service in all of its 24 member communities. The goal is to make changes of the least consequence to riders, Sheehan said. The PVTA now continues to run, but less often. Where buses would once come every 15 minutes, they now arrive only once an hour.

“In the last few years, we’ve made the service basically less convenient to our passengers,” Sheehan said. “It absolutely affects the quality of their lives.” 

Increased revenue for the RTAs could mean more drivers, buses and expanded routes and schedules. Increases in ridership will follow as services become available to those who need it, said transportation committee member Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton.

“This is truly a matter of needing more revenue to fund public transportation,” Sabadosa said.

Sabadosa said the transportation committee has not yet discussed RTAs, but plans to.

With the governor’s budget for RTAs remaining largely unchanged, a solution is not readily available. Even in regions without major deficits, the future of RTAs and their continued service to riders is uncertain.

Sen. Adam Hinds’ district includes communities in Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden counties serviced by the Berkshire Region Transit Authority. Hinds said threats to funds will impact riders in his region as well.

“When it comes to transportation in rural areas, there are a few issues that are as important in terms of their impact on the daily lives of residents,” Hinds said.

Clete Kus, transportation planning manager for Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, said the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority (BRTA) board does what they can to continue service without taking on debt. The issues arise as costs increase and state funding does not. At a certain point, reductions in routes and services become necessary.

“The individuals that are utilizing their service are those really that don’t have other transportation options, so it’s really crucial,” Kus said. “When you have a segment of the population that is not wealthy … these folks are the working poor, [they] aren’t in a position to afford a vehicle. And really, their only means of transportation, other than walking, is to utilize public transportation by the BRTA.” 

Innovation is vital to the continuation of public transit in the commonwealth, Hinds said. In a rapidly changing transportation climate, the BRTA must adapt. Hinds said he and his office have been working alongside the BRTA and the Berkshire Regional Chamber of Commerce to develop a new public transit system for the region. They aim to find ways to unite different modes of transportation, creating hybrid systems by combining transportation assets.

The project could make use off-duty school buses, senior vans, and special-needs transportation, as well as forms of on-demand transportation such as Uber and Lyft, Hinds said. The solution to the problem of rural transit is not simply more money, Hinds added, as ridership decreases across the country.

“An overarching question that is guiding this conversation is, do we see more ridership when we spend more money on the RTAs? If the answer is no, then that’s where the innovation really comes in,” Hinds said. “The data I’ve seen indicates that the answer is no.” 

In early March, both the BRTA and the PVTA received some additional funding from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, decided through a bid system. Both received awards of nearly $400,000 — useful, but not a permanent solution, according to Sabadosa.

The PVTA will be putting these funds towards restoring increased regularity of service along certain highway routes, Sheehan said. Hinds said the BRTA plans to use its award to restore weekend and nighttime service to its communities for the time being.

Tory Dixon does not have great expectations for changes to the system that takes her to work, to appointments, and sometimes just to the grocery store.

Right now, she has backup options. When the PVTA fails, her husband takes her. Many riders, Dixon pointed out, don’t have this option.

This article was previously published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

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