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Colleges balk at bus service reductions

  • The R29 Pioneer Valley Transit Authority bus makes a stop at the Haigis Mall at the University of Massachusetts, Wednesday. The R29 route would be affected by proposed service reductions.

  • Ruizhe Si, 25, waits for a bus Wednesday at the University of Massachusetts Haigis Mall. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Mark Britton, 22, talks about proposed service reductions by the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority while waiting for a bus Wednesday at the University of Massachusetts Haigis Mall.

  • Hlelolwenkhosi Mamba, 27, talks about proposed service reductions by the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority while waiting for a bus Wednesday at the University of Massachusetts Haigis Mall.



@RebeccaMMullen
Thursday, July 13, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — After 40 years of partnering with the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, representatives from the Five Colleges Inc. say they might have to consider other transportation options.

In the face of PVTA budget cuts that threaten 16 bus routes, the consortium, consisting of Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges as well as the University of Massachusetts, sent a letter expressing frustration with the actions of the transit authority.

The PVTA, meanwhile, said the recently passed state budget allocates it less money than it anticipated, and it now faces a deficit of $1.7 million for the coming year.

“We have a responsibility to have a balanced budget,” newly hired administrator Sandra Sheehan said.

The colleges say they were not consulted over the changes until after public hearings began, long after academic schedules were set. The consortium relies on buses to get students from one campus to another to take classes and participate in community events.

“It’s therefore baffling and discouraging that neither PVTA staff members nor the PVTA Advisory Board consulted with us, their long-term partner, when they began considerations of eliminating some of the Five College bus routes,” stated the July 7 letter, signed by Hampshire College President Jonathan Lash and Neal Abraham, executive director of Five Colleges Inc. Lash is also president of the Five College board of directors.

Among the routes that may be eliminated are the M40, which connects Northampton to UMass, and the 39, which connects Smith, Hampshire and Mount Holyoke. Additionally, the R29, which connects UMass, Hampshire and Mount Holyoke, may have weekend service eliminated, and several UMass campus shuttles may have their service reduced.

Andrew Mangels, vice chancellor for administration and finance at UMass, also sent a letter to the PVTA Wednesday, arguing for the importance of maintaining the bus routes.

The Five Colleges subsidize the routes that connect the campuses by paying the total operating costs of the routes for the academic year. The figure works out to be about $500,000 in total. During the academic year, bus travel is free for college students, faculty and staff, and fares are not collected — although riders not affiliated with the colleges are expected to have purchased a ticket on an “honor system.”

The colleges estimate that they have paid $5.5 million over the last 10 years for the buses, along with at least $100,000 for additional services such as shuttles.

Abraham said Wednesday that some PVTA routes would not be able to run were it not for the colleges’ contributions. But if routes are eliminated, the colleges might start looking into private forms of transportation, he said.

The colleges run a private shuttle between Mount Holyoke and Smith that takes significantly less time than the R29, which is rerouted because of ongoing construction on Route 47.

“Thirty minutes to 45 minutes might not seem like much, but it could make all the difference in the world,” he said, noting that many students have tight schedules and an extra 15 minutes could mean missing an entire class.

The colleges have not yet paid for the coming academic year but say their transportation budget is fixed, so they could not increase their contributions to offset the financial strain.

Sheehan said the concerns raised in the colleges’ letter will be presented with the other public comments at the July 19 PVTA advisory board meeting.

“The comments we receive will influence the decisions we make,” she said Tuesday.

But, she said, the PVTA’s deficit makes service cuts a necessity. In a worst-case scenario, all of the 16 routes could be eliminated or reduced, she said.

The PVTA will hear Friday if it has been awarded a state CMAQ air quality improvement grant, worth approximately $500,000, that could help alleviate the budget shortfall.

Sheehan said the decrease in state funding came as a surprise and that the PVTA had expected to be level-funded. PVTA received approximately $23.5 million in state funding, or about half its total operating expenses, in fiscal 2017.

“You always expect when they do your annual review you’re going to get a raise,” she said.

State Rep. Peter Kocot, D-Northampton, said that he was unaware of the PVTA’s proposed service cuts until he was informed by a constituent. He said that had local legislators known of the PVTA’s situation, they could have pushed harder to allocate more money for transportation funds in the state budget.

“We’re always there to help, but in this case no one contacted us,” he said. “Being helpful requires us to have an adequate amount of information at an appropriate time.”

In the meantime, Kocot and his fellow legislators have scheduled a meeting with the PVTA for next February before the time comes to decide the state budget. Moving forward, he said, they’ve “hit the reset button” on their relationship with the PVTA.