Bleak outlook for extended PVTA bus service in Amherst this summer

  • A PVTA bus GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 3/7/2019 4:28:46 PM

AMHERST — Despite a continued push to guarantee extended bus service on core PVTA routes through Amherst this summer, chances are slim that it will happen.

Douglas Slaughter, the town’s representative to the PVTA Advisory Committee, told the Town Council Monday that even though Town Meeting last May increased the town’s appropriation for bus service by $53,000, there are many challenges to having buses run deeper into the night when college students are away.

Any changes to what are known as fixed routes require an extended, months-long process to schedule drivers and to inform riders, Slaughter said.

He noted that PVTA Administrator Sandra Sheehan also does not want to add routes or adjust existing routes if the agency is able to sustain them for the long term because that would create what she terms “false hope.”

It is “deleterious to building trust with your ridership,” Slaughter said.

Slaughter’s detailed presentation came despite repeated requests to the council by Rob Kusner, a former Select Board member and chairman of the Public Transportation Committee, that PVTA find ways to maintain the same level of service in summer 2019 as it did last summer.

Kusner said ending the Route 30 and Route 31 buses between 9 and 10 p.m. weekdays during the summer will be an “extreme disservice” to year-round residents and workers.

He noted the town Transportation Fund money already approved for spending increased from $819,121 to $872,121 by a transfer from the fund’s free cash account at Town Meeting last spring.

Under a plan developed in consultation with Glenn Barrington, general manager of University of Massachusetts Transit Services, which operates PVTA buses in Amherst, Kusner said he would like to see a low-cost option that adds one additional trip on the routes at the end of the day. This should be as easy as eliminating route extensions into Belchertown and Sunderland, thus keeping the buses entirely within Amherst, and taking passengers to Belchertown Road, East Hadley Road and Sunderland Road before returning to the garage on the UMass campus.

Kusner said the proposal should have been taken up May 15, 2018, shortly after Town Meeting approved the spending, rather than waiting until March 2019 and just two months until the summer schedule begins, right after UMass commencement.

As an example of the negative effects, Kusner points to La Veracruzana, a South Pleasant Street restaurant which is open until 9 p.m. daily. Eating one of its fish tacos Tuesday night, Kusner said because its chef rides the Route 31 bus back to a home on East Hadley Road, the restaurant would likely have to close earlier from May through August because of the bus route cuts.

“If there are no chefs at La Veracruzana, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy our fish tacos, or whatever else we enjoy there,” Kusner said.

When Amherst has appropriated money for PVTA in the past, Slaughter said the town manager at those times would enter a contract with PVTA that would give the agency certainty about the funding. No such certainty exists with the money Town Meeting appropriated in 2018.

Slaughter said the best course for helping PVTA remains advocacy at the state level to build better support for regional transit authorities. And the extra money at the town level might be better invested in the ValleyBike Share and other transit options.

It is uncertain if the council will take up the topic again in the coming weeks. Town Manager Paul Bockelman said if the council chooses not to, the money will return to the transportation fund’s free cash.

District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen said PVTA funding should be discussed as part of the larger issue of how to reduce dependence on cars in Amherst.

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

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