Transit boards have a lot riding on state funding

By Nidavirani (Own work), CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

By Elise Takahama
BU News Service

BOSTON – Local regional transit authorities are joining the fight in pushing for greater funding as state officials continue to work on the 2020 fiscal budget.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo recently announced that before the state authorizes additional funding, the commonwealth’s 15 regional transit authorities must first demonstrate they’re operating smoothly. While officials from local RTAs agree that is a reasonable request, they say they might still have difficulties pulling it off.

“The Speaker is right – but we’re struggling to keep services going because the state funding has remained at the same level for the last five years,” said Mohammed Khan, administrator of the Montachusett Regional Transit Authority, which serves about 1 million people and covers several towns and cities, including Fitchburg, Gardner, and Leominster.

Last month, Gov. Charlie Baker proposed sending $86 million to RTAs, which includes $4 million in grant money for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to give out based on the best RTA practices in the state, according to the Statehouse News Service.

Last year, Baker proposed keeping RTA funding at $80.4 million, but the Legislature ended up allocating $88 million to MassDOT, which also included the $4 million in awards.

But while RTA officials appreciated the grant funding, Khan said transit authorities haven’t received any of the money yet, even though fiscal year 2019 began last July.

MassDOT spokesman Maxwell Huber said the awards are expected to be announced “in the near future.

Khan said MART had to reduce service in the Athol and Orange areas last year, cutting two buses down to just one. A late-night run in Fitchburg was also eliminated, he said. But he wants to revamp the organization’s services.

During weeknights, MART now shuts down services at 7:30 or 8 p.m. Khan wants to push that to around 9 p.m., he said. He’d also like to extend service on Saturdays and continue to increase service for those in wheelchairs. In order to do that, however, MART needs funds, he said.

“I would like to see (the state) give us the money and let us show them that we’re doing a good job,” Khan said. “It’s a cart before the horse situation. We need the money to survive and to demonstrate that we’re doing a better job. This is not the way you can show you can do a better job when you’re just holding on to the job.”

MART’s fiscal 19 budget for transit operation is about $15.8 million, Deputy Administrator Bruno Fisher said in an email. About 35 percent comes from state funding and about 45 percent comes evenly from fare boxes, federal funding and assessments from local communities, he said.

The Lowell Regional Transit Authority, which serves about 1.6 million riders per year, is also trying to extend its services, but is hoping to receive funds outside the fiscal budget, said LRTA Administrator Jim Scanlan.

The $12.7 million LRTA budget is made up of funding from several sources, Scanlan said. The state contributes about 28 percent, assessments from local communities cover about 23 percent, the federal government gives 25 percent and fare boxes rake in 12 percent, he said.

This year, LRTA also recently applied for two grants with the MassDOT, Scanlan said. The first, called the Sunday urban service grant, would be used to run 10 routes in the Greater Lowell area on Sundays, and the second, called the rural grant, would be used to send LRTA vans to areas without service on the weekends, Scanlan said.

The Sunday urban service grant requested $441,000, and the rural grant requested $95,400.

“A lot of communities don’t have any service on the weekends,” Scanlan said. “If you didn’t have any vehicle transportation out there, you’re really on your own.”

According to the LRTA website, buses generally start running around 6 or 6:30 a.m. on weekdays and finish up between 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., depending on the stop.

This is one of the biggest concerns for Rep. Stephen Hay, D-Fitchburg, who also said he supports more funding for RTAs — as long as they’re moving in an efficient manner.

“I understand the need to make sure the regional transit authorities are running in an efficient manner and making good decisions, but … we’re talking about transportation being a big component of economic development and pay equity,” Hay said. “People living in poverty need to be able to get to work.”

Some people, Hay said, aren’t working because they can’t get to work. Others will qualify for a higher-level job, but are forced to take lower-level ones because it’s the only one they can get to, he said.

“If we can assist them to get somewhere farther away, we should,” Hay said.

Last summer, the Legislature authorized the creation of a new task force to analyze some of these concerns.

The Task Force on Regional Transit Authority Performance and Funding was born in July 2018 and holds public meetings to discuss funding and identify the best practices for community needs, according to a MassDOT statement.

Scanlan said he thinks the new group is a positive first step.

“There’s been a lot of good things coming out of that,” he said. “They’re getting people together and trying figure out how to do things more efficiently … And as we go forward, we obviously have to embrace efficiencies, we have to embrace new technologies, and in order to do that, we need to have better cooperation of working together. And this task force is probably going to continue that dialogue.”

This article was previously published in the Lowell Sun.

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