Five Colleges appeal to Baker, Legislature for bus funding

  • The R29 Pioneer Valley Transit Authority bus makes a stop at the Haigis Mall at the University of Massachusetts in July.

Staff Writer
Thursday, March 22, 2018

AMHERST — College leaders are appealing to the governor and lawmakers to boost funding for the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, which is considering rate hikes and route reductions to confront a projected $3.1 million shortfall in its budget.

On March 14, the Five Colleges Consortium sent a letter, signed by board president Jonathan Lash, president of Hampshire College, and Neal Abraham, executive director of Five Colleges Inc., urging the state to fund regional transit authorities, or RTAs, at $88 million in fiscal year 2019, with reliable cost-of-living increases in subsequent years.

“Multi-year, level-funding of these crucial transportation systems has already had a corrosive effect on the commonwealth as it requires service cuts that directly degrade our economy, our quality of life, the lives and budgets of poor and working families, and key sectors, such as higher education, that depend on a robust public transportation system,” Lash and Abraham wrote.

The letter was sent to Gov. Charlie Baker, Senate President Harriette Chandler, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Karen Spilka and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jeffrey Sánchez. In addition, all state lawmakers whose districts are served by PVTA, which includes 24 communities, were provided copies of the letter.

Five Colleges spokesman Kevin Kennedy said taking the step of writing the letter was unusual, but important, because legislators will soon begin acting on Baker’s budget proposal.

“In this situation, the need to increase budgetary funding for PVTA and RTA’s was really essential,” Kennedy said. “We are just hoping this will have an impact on the legislative process.”

Under Baker’s proposal, the $80.4 million budget for regional transit authorities will not mean enough for the PVTA, with nearly half its budget dependent on the state. To counter the deficit, caused by inflation, rising costs such as health care and a decline in ridership, PVTA has proposed raising fares by 25 percent, and reducing bus service by up to 16 percent, affecting 43 routes and eliminating 1.1 million passenger trips a year.

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, who serves as chairman of the PVTA Advisory Committee, said the budget PVTA submits this spring to the state’s Department of Transportation has to be balanced and will be based on Baker’s proposal.

“We’re using the governor’s level-funded budget to begin the process, because it’s the only responsible thing we can do,” Narkewciz said.

But Narkewicz said a letter is already circulating from the RTA caucus among legislators advocating for the full $88 million in funding, and the Five Colleges letter can supplement that. Narkewicz said he and PVTA Administrator Sandra Sheehan will also be at a legislative event focused on regional transit authorities later this month.

In addition, he said, there is some confidence that Chandler, who represents Worcester, has an understanding of how funding cuts have impacted her city’s transit system.

Narkewicz said PVTA has held almost all of the 16 public hearings in the region, with many expressing worry about the impact of cuts on year-round residents.

“There is overarching concern about reduction in service and the impacts it will have on transit-dependent populations,” Narkewicz said.

The Five Colleges letter spells out the reasons for preserving routes for the cities and towns and the colleges and universities in the region. It contends that cutbacks would encourage most students and employees to use personal vehicles rather than public transportation, adding to congestion on roads and carbon dioxide emissions. It notes that 38,000 students attend the Five Colleges, and 10,000 faculty and staff are employed by them.

“Working together to keep this economic engine running well is important for the entire Valley,” they write.

Last year, PVTA eliminated four of its 63 bus routes and cut back on service to nine more as it faced a smaller shortfall in funding.

Narkewicz said students, residents and employers, both large and small, can still weigh in on the issue. He anticipates bringing a resolution to the City Council that will underline PVTA’s importance to Northampton.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.