UMass students offered a new late-night option for returning from downtown Amherst to campus
AMHERST — For many University of Massachusetts students who patronize downtown bars and restaurants into the early morning hours, the only safe means of getting back to campus or their nearby housing is to pay for a taxi ride, or to walk.
Beginning Thursday and continuing each Thursday, Friday and Saturday night until the end of the spring semester, students will have a free alternative transportation option called the Sober Shuttle.
After a year of planning, the initiative, conceived by Student Government Association President Akshay Kapoor, is ready to start.
“My idea was to have a bus go around,” Kapoor said. “It should be a successful program, I hope.”
In recent years the last direct bus run from downtown to campus has been at 1:05 a.m., Kapoor said, leaving little time for people leaving the bars and getting a bite to eat to make it back using public transportation.
More and more students were calling for cabs as they missed the last bus or couldn’t get on because it was filled, Kapoor said, while others walk back to their dorm rooms and disturb residents in neighborhoods near UMass.
“The truth is that there is only a very small segment of students who cause some, if any, disruptive behavior in our community, and it is my hope that this initiative will be another step by the university and its students to help reduce that problem and extend an olive branch to the town,” Kapoor said.
The Sober Shuttle will make pickups at 1:20 a.m. and 2 a.m., in front of the post office at the corner of North Pleasant Street and Kellogg Avenue.
The buses, which will have a UMass police officer on board, will drop passengers off at just two places, the Haigis Mall on Massachusetts Avenue for students who live on campus, and on North Pleasant Street north of campus near Brandywine Apartments. Kapoor said the buses are intentionally bypassing Fearing Street as a drop-off location due to the area’s history of late-night disturbances by students walking through the neighborhood on their way back to campus.
Passengers will only be allowed on board if they have a UMass student ID. Friends visiting campus will not be able to board, even if with a significant other, and would instead have to find other ways to get back.
The program is estimated to cost $11,600, with $4,800 to pay for the bus rental and driver salary, and $6,800 for the police detail.
“The Sober Shuttle is a service that students need, and have craved for a long time,” Kapoor said.
Kapoor said last spring a survey of students showed 77 percent wanted the late shuttle and, in a referendum vote, students agreed to pay for it through an increase in the Student Activities Trust Fund fee, which will go from $111 to $125. But Kapoor said each student will pay less than $1.05 per semester to fund the Sober Shuttle, with the remainder going toward other activities.
Kapoor worked with town, university and police officials to establish the shuttle.
Allan Byam, general manager of UMass Transit, said students are renting the bus through UMass Transit’s field trip division.
“Technically, I’m sponsoring a field trip every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night for students,” Kapoor said.
UMass Transit stipulated that a police officer would have to be on board the buses for the safety of driver and passengers, as well as protection of property, which is similar to how other evening and late-night buses operate on the weekends.
“Weekends are a struggle for us even with an officer on board,” Byam said.
UMass Police Chief John Horvath will schedule the duty officers who will board the bus each week.
Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone said he supports the plan, as long as the shuttle isn’t used as a party bus.
“We’re in complete agreement with it. Our only concern was that it not be a mechanism for ferrying kids out to parties,” Livingstone said.
Livingstone said his officers already ride PVTA buses on weekends, something they have done for 20 years, and understand the issues.
Kapoor said Sober Shuttle is being publicized with posters and banners, and members of his cabinet will also be out guiding students to the buses during the first few nights.
Kapoor presented the plan to the Campus and Community Coalition this week.
Lisa Queenin, co-chairwoman of the coalition, said the shuttle should help cut down on the large numbers of students returning to their dormitories on foot through neighborhoods like Fearing Street and Lincoln Avenue late at night.
“It’s really a nice model for what our students can do,” said Sally Linowski, an assistant dean of students.
Kapoor said if this proves popular, SGA could expand routes to both South Amherst and Hadley in future semesters.