Editorial: PVTA must communicate better

  • The R29 Pioneer Valley Transit Authority bus makes a stop at the Haigis Mall at the University of Massachusetts, Wednesday. 

Published: 8/3/2017 9:08:41 AM

It should come as no surprise that the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority was forced to make service reductions on bus routes as it faced a $1.2 million budget shortfall heading into the new fiscal year.

For one, the state has failed to meet a multi-year commitment to provide annual increases to regional transit authorities like PVTA, and it is state funding that provides about half of the Springfield-based transit agency’s $47 million budget. The agency received $600,000 less in state funding this year.

Compounding the PVTA’s budget woes were cost increases related to fuel, employee health insurance, wages, and low fare revenue. It’s a budget crisis and tough decisions had to be made.

What is surprising, though, is the apparent lack of communication between the PVTA and some its key stakeholders, particularly state lawmakers and the Five Colleges, whose statements in recent weeks have raised questions about whether PVTA officials adequately alerted them to the financial pinch.

In a Gazette story last week, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg acknowledged that the state’s plan to increase revenues for regional transit authorities stalled because of a lack of revenues and that all agencies that depend on state support “just have to manage their way through it.”

OK, but when they crafted the state budget, did area lawmakers fully understand what PVTA’s advisory board was facing when it voted last month to either eliminate or cut down service to as many as 16 routes in the Valley? Doesn’t sound like it.

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.”

Last week, Kocot told Gazette reporter Scott Merzbach that lawmakers recently learned the PVTA does not regularly increase fares, as the MBTA does in Boston, to ensure it has sufficient revenue for operations and capital expenditures. He added that lawmakers are trying to educate the PVTA about their “relationship in the legislative process” and to keep them informed about any funding issues so that they can effectively advocate for the transit authority.

As for the Five Colleges, which contributes about $515,000 annually to pay towards the operating costs of the routes serving campuses in Amherst, Northampton and South Hadley during the academic year, officials have said they still don’t know how PVTA formulates that figure. They have requested a breakdown of the costs of operating those routes multiple times from PVTA, which it has strangely not provided. Why not? That’s a fundamental piece of information that would provide a better understanding of the costs associated with running bus service to and from the Five Colleges – and help determine whether payments for that service are equitable and on target.

In responding to its deficit, PVTA is eliminating four of its 63 bus routes and reducing service on nine others, including the M40 that ran express service between Northampton and the University of Massachusetts and the Tiger Trolley that served South Hadley as well as having portions of some routes served by other buses. The PVTA has implemented these changes, along with plans to tap various reserves to close the deficit.

It’s an unfortunate development for an agency that has during the past several years expanded bus routes, improved van service for disabled individuals and senior citizens, put hybrid-electric and electric buses on the road and been a leader in technology, with automatic stop announcements added on buses and real-time signs being installed at stops.

Despite these improvements, however; it’s clear the PVTA needs to do a better job of educating the public, its consumers, and especially lawmakers about the region’s transit needs and the challenges it faces trying to provide services when financial red flags appear – earlier rather than later.

The next year will be a telling one for the PVTA as it operates with reduced services for the first time in recent memory. Moving forward, the PVTA’s advisory board must be diligent and resourceful in trying to maintain the high standards in customer service its riders have come to expect. More important, PVTA leadership must put a premium on making its case at the local, state and federal level to ensure that its 12 million annual riders, many of them low-income, poor and elderly residents, continue to have an affordable and reliable means to get around.




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