Columnist Andrew Donson: Please save the Five College Buses

  • A PVTA bus makes a turn after a stop at the Hampshire Mall Thursday in Hadley.JERREY ROBERTS JERREY ROBERTS

Friday, July 14, 2017

The PVTA is now considering canceling the M40 and the 39, the Five College express buses that link Northampton, Amherst and South Hadley. It needs to postpone this decision, scheduled to be made on July 19. The process leading up to this decision has been so careless that it cannot be relied upon to determine if there will be any discrimination.

If the PVTA had done a correct analysis, it would have realized that canceling the M40 will save little money, if any at all. It would have also realized that canceling the 39 will make it impossible for students at Hampshire, Smith, and Mount Holyoke colleges to take courses in the Five College consortium. Above all, right now, it seems that the towns and the state have been subsidizing the Five College buses, not the other way around. For the sake of fairness, the Five Colleges should give the PVTA retroactive subsidies to maintain the M40 and the 39.


The PVTA did not post sufficient notice of the hearings on the possible discontinuation of service. I had to personally print copies of a notice that I wrote myself and taped to the glass at the bus stops. The hearings were held in June, when the vast majority of Five College riders are out of town. At the hearing in Northampton, the dean of students at Smith College said that no one had informed her about the coming possible cuts. The University of Massachusetts Amherst has long known about the possible discontinuation of service, but did not weigh in until Wednesday.


In its analysis of the ridership on the M40, the PVTA has committed a gross methodological error by measuring average, round-trip ridership and ignoring ridership in the peak, one-way direction. If the PVTA had done due diligence, it would have found out that the M40 buses going from Northampton to UMass in the morning are mostly full, sometimes with standing room only, and that buses going the other way are all but empty, and vice-versa in the evening.

The PVTA supposes that the riders on the M40 can shift to the B43, the local bus. Such a supposition is misguided. The B43 buses simply cannot accommodate the fifteen to forty-five riders who will have to shift from the M40 in the peak directions. It will have to add additional B43 buses, especially in the evening, when the B43s are already overcrowded with students going to the mall. These B43 buses are more expensive because they take two hours round-trip instead of the one hour of the more efficient M40. The money that canceling the M40 will save is at best marginal. Canceling it may even cost more money. I have asked the PVTA for data to confirm my estimate on peak-direction ridership, but it has not provided it. I am not sure it even has the data.

The PVTA supposes that riders at Smith, Hampshire, and Mount Holyoke colleges, now served by the 39, can instead take the B43 and transfer to the 38. This is absurd. It would take one hour and 20 minutes to travel from South Hadley to Smith College on this revised route … if the rider could make the connections. Who would spend close to over two and a half hours on a commute to take a course at another college?


Right now, it seems the Five Colleges are barely covering the fare for their students, faculty, and staff who ride free, let alone subsidizing the buses. According to Smith College, one million passengers ride the Five College buses annually, and according to the PVTA, the Five Colleges are assessed $515,000 annually by the towns. If just half of these riders are students, faculty, and staff, the PVTA is collecting $110,000 less than it would have collected if it charged them the full $1.25 fare. To use a narrower example: Right now, according to the PVTA, the Five Colleges are paying just $13,650 to run the M40, a bus whose riders are almost exclusively UMass faculty, staff, and students. But the PVTA would collect about $36,000 per year if it charged full fare for those Five-College riders.

The financial data provided to me by the PVTA could very well be incorrect. However, at the very least, before any cuts to service are made, the situation warrants an audit. The Five Colleges subsidize parking. They should be subsidizing bus service beyond just the fare.

State budget

The PVTA had claimed on its website that the possible discontinuation of service was due to cuts to the state budget. However, the PVTA never contacted our state legislators, who were upset when they found out about the possible cuts to service weeks after the state budget debates had ended, and nonetheless blamed the legislators for the fiasco (The PVTA has since removed the claim about cuts to the state budget). UMass knew about the possible cuts but did not bring them to the attention of the state legislators.


The Five Colleges are supposed to be committed to sustainability and be environmentally responsible. These buses make the Valley attractive to the many foreign faculty and students who expect good public transportation. Some of us have to take the bus because we are physically or legally not able to drive. One cannot live in Amherst without a car and get basic services like health care, food shopping, hardware stores, etc. Forcing riders to take cars will require more parking lots and increase bridge traffic. It will also hurt business. Living in Northampton, Amherst and South Hadley would be more difficult without these lines. The bus service is a reason why people want to live here.

In its plan to discontinue the M40 and 39, the PVTA has been sloppy and shortsighted. The PVTA should now do its due diligence. The Five Colleges should do what is fair and provide funds to keep the M40 and 39 running.

Andrew Donson is a Northampton resident and associate professor of history and German and Scandinavian studies at UMass Amherst.