PVTA cuts UMass bus routes for lack of drivers

  • The University of Massachusetts Amherst campus File photo

Staff Writer
Thursday, September 20, 2018

AMHERST — A shortage of drivers for Pioneer Valley Transit Authority buses that operate in Amherst is prompting a reduction in weekday service on three routes that largely serve University of Massachusetts students.

The schedule changes, which went into effect Monday, Sept. 17, supplement route reductions already implemented throughout PVTA’s 24-community service area. Those earlier reductions, including ending service earlier on “non-academic” reduced-service days, limiting the frequency of evening service and using a Sunday service schedule on all holidays, began after Labor Day as a way to deal with a shortfall in the regional transit authority’s budget.

Glenn Barrington, general manager of UMass Transportation Services, said the latest route changes in Amherst, though, are caused by not having enough interest from student drivers and an insufficient number of drivers who have gone through the required training the get their commercial driver’s licenses.

“The decision is tied to a current shortage of student bus drivers,” Barrington said.

Barrington said all other routes will maintain their existing schedules.

Two of the routes affected, 34 and 35, are focused on the UMass campus and are known as the Northbound and Southbound Campus Shuttle routes. These will run at 22-minute intervals instead of the current 15-minute intervals, picking up and dropping off passengers at McGuirk Alumni Stadium, the Southwest Area, the Studio Arts Building, Olympia Drive, Upper Central and the Mullins Center.

Route 33, the Puffer’s Pond/ Shopper Shuttle, which picks up and drops off passengers at Mill Hollow Apartments, the Amherst Survival Center, the Jones Library, Big Y Supermarket and in Cushman, will run at 80-minute intervals instead of the current 40-minute intervals.

Barrington said the changes are expected to remain in effect through the fall semester, but there is hope of finding more drivers soon.

“With an effective driver recruitment campaign and subsequent training of drivers, we expect previous service levels to be re-established,” Barrington said.

In fact, UMass Transit is holding a hiring event Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the UMass bus garage at 255 Governors Drive.

Although driver shortages have been experienced for transit authorities in the region and nationwide, Brandy Pelletier, a spokeswoman for PVTA, said the agency has been out in front of the issue and has not had to eliminate routes because of lack of drivers.

“We’re trying to do job fairs and have hiring notices on all our buses that we’re looking for people,” Pelletier said.

Though UMass Transit depends on part-time drivers, Pelletier said most drivers throughout the system are full time.

The reduction in weekday runs for UMass Transit comes even though annual Town Meeting in Amherst this spring appropriated an additional $53,000 aimed at restoring and preserving routes, mostly on weekends, that had been planned for cuts due to the PVTA budget shortfall.

Select Board Chairman Douglas Slaughter, who serves as Amherst’s representative to the PVTA Advisory Committee, told his colleagues this week that with savings estimated from the additional cutbacks caused by the driver shortage, $80,000 could be available in the spring to apply to enhancing bus routes.

He said UMass Transit boosted pay for its drivers to $14 per hour, but that it is possible many students are finding other, better-paying jobs in what is a good economy.

“They are quite frankly shorthanded and patching up shifts as best they can,” Slaughter said.

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