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Riders troubled by PVTA’s proposed service reductions

  • Passengers board a Pioneer Valley Transit Authority bus Sunday in front of Pulaski Park in Northampton. The bus company is drawing flak over its proposed service reductions.

  • A passenger uses a Pioneer Valley Transit Authority bus July 9, 2017 in front of Pulaski Park in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



@RebeccaMMullen
Monday, July 10, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — In recent public hearings, college students and staff, commuters and others are presenting a united front against proposed cuts to Pioneer Valley Transit Authority bus service.

Anxious riders turned out in droves the last two weeks to object to the bus company’s plans to reduce or eliminate 16 of its 63 routes.

Mount Holyoke College employee Natasha Rubanova commutes from the college in South Hadley to her home in Northampton on the 39 route. With the proposed elimination of the bus, she says she will have no way to get to work.

“I planned my life around this route,” she said at a recent hearing in South Hadley. “If these routes are eliminated I will suffer significant financial consequences.”

Hampshire College student Raina Franklin Baker spoke at one of two Northampton hearings. She lives off campus and said she relies on the PVTA to get to class and work.

“I don’t have a car. I’m low-income. I take the bus every single day and it’s important to my financial and educational well-being,” she said.

The proposed changes would leave hundreds of bus riders without any service. Eight hearings have been held since June 21 in Amherst, South Hadley, Northampton and Sunderland — communities most affected by the proposals.

Among the routes on the line are: M40 Minuteman Express, which connects Northampton and Amherst; Five College Route 39, which brings passengers between Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges; X98 Crosstown in Northampton — the only bus that serves the Northampton Survival Center; Route 46, running from Whately, South Deerfield and Sunderland to the University of Massachusetts campus; Route R29 from Holyoke and South Hadley to the UMass campus; and UMass-Amherst Campus Shuttle Routes 34 and 35

Route changes will be voted on by the PVTA advisory board on July 19 and implemented at summer’s end.

Sandra Sheehan, PVTA administrator, said a combination of increased operating costs and an expected decrease in transportation funds at the state level is forcing them to make service cuts. Additionally, after service expansions in 2015, PVTA ridership has stagnated.

To meet PVTA performance standards, each bus needs to carry 20 passengers per wage hour. By this metric, 15 of the 16 buses on the chopping block are underperforming.

“We never like to be in a position to make service modifications,” Sheehan said last week.

College administrators said they worry for the viability of the five college consortium if the changes go through. Most students do not have cars and rely on the PVTA to get to school, jobs and other essential services.

“This would be a huge loss to Mount Holyoke and the community,” said Mount Holyoke Dean of Students Marcella Hall, at one of two hearings held in South Hadley.

Representatives for UMass graduate programs spoke at one of the Northampton hearings bearing petitions from additional students, signed in absentia.

Of greatest concern, they said, is the loss of the express M40 bus that connects Amherst to Northampton, where many students and staff choose to live because of the cheaper rent and the city’s walkability. A local bus will still serve the area but it can take anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes longer, depending on traffic, and there’s fear of overcrowding.

UMass professor Anne Broadbridge wrote to the Gazette in defense of the M40.

“When I ride in the morning, the bus is full or overfull,” she said in a June 29 letter. “If I had to switch to the B43 (the local), I don’t see how we would all fit in the morning.”

Mike Sullivan, South Hadley town administrator, spoke at the South Hadley hearing. He said he is “opposed to any changes in service to the community.”

Sullivan added that earlier departures and later return times for the R29 could help the bus system grow and increase its ridership. Many speakers expressed a similar sentiment, saying they worried that service reductions could further reduce rider confidence, creating a vicious cycle that would drive down bus usage.

State Rep. John Scibak, D-South Hadley, said he was worried about the way in which the proposed changes were communicated to the public.

“We should be working together,” he said, adding his comments at the South Hadley hearing.

Decreased bus service is not just an inconvenience. For many in the Valley, it’s the only way to get around.

In compliance with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the PVTA is required to perform a Title VI equity analysis to ensure that the route changes would not discriminate against any group based upon any minority status.

According to the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, 62 percent of PVTA riders are nonwhite and 55 percent are considered low-income, including students. Because of these demographic facts, any change will disproportionately impact people of color and those who are low-income, according to Sheehan.

If all of the proposed changes go through, about 400 riders will lose almost all of their existing service and 500 will lose express service like the M40, says David Elvin, principal planner at the PVPC.

“This is really not an exercise we enjoy,” Elvin said Wednesday. “We serve people who have no other way to make their trips.”

Public comments on the route changes will be accepted until Tuesday and can be made via email at comments@pvta.com or by leaving a 3-minute phone message at (413) 732-6248 x 235.