Short-funded PVTA looks to raise fares, cut service

  • Pioneer Valley Transit Authority Administrator Sandra Sheehan and Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz listen to proposed service changes for fiscal year 2018 during a special meeting of the PVTA Advisory Board in Springfield on Wednesday, July 19, 2017.

  • A passenger uses a Pioneer Valley Transit Authority bus July 9, 2017 in front of Pulaski Park in Northampton.

Staff Writer
Published: 2/6/2018 6:30:30 PM

AMHERST — For the first time in a decade, the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority is proposing an increase in fares, as well as reductions to service, mostly on weekends and holidays.

The changes are aimed at addressing a possible $3.1 million shortfall in the PVTA budget based on anticipated funding for regional transit authorities from the state, which is no longer keeping up with inflation, rising costs such as health care, and revenue lost from a decline in ridership.

“It’s been more than a decade since the fares have changed,” Douglas Slaughter, Amherst Select Board chairman, told his colleagues at Monday’s meeting.

Slaughter serves as the town’s liaison to the PVTA Advisory Committee, which has representatives from the 24 cities and towns the agency serves.

PVTA received $22.9 million in the state budget for this year’s operations, $600,000 less than the previous year, and also gets revenue from assessments to the cities and towns, Five Colleges Inc. and the University of Massachusetts.

The preferred fare change, which would be the first adjustment since 2008, is what PVTA officials are calling the 25 percent increase. This across-the-board hike would generate $905,000 in new revenues, though projected ridership drops would mean a corresponding loss of $454,000.

But with this one-time fare increase comes a plan for more regularly raising the rates, with a 5-percent-per-year fare increase planned every three years.

Because it makes changes to fees frequently, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which oversees the buses, trains and subways that make up the T in the Boston area, usually has sufficient revenue for operations and capital projects.

Slaughter said the idea is for PVTA to chart out a budget trajectory showing the state’s Department of Transportation that the agency is taking revenue generation seriously.

However, fare increases have a less obvious impact for PVTA, Slaughter noted, because so many of its riders are part of the Five College community and are not obligated to pay for their trips.

For those who do, the current $1.25 cost per trip for adults would go up to $1.60, a 31-day pass would rise from $45 to $56, an elderly disabled monthly pass would go up from $22 to $28, and a one-day pass would rise from $3 to $3.75.

In fact, route changes, with seven scenarios explored, could have a bigger impact, both financially and on riders.

“This is going to be a more painful year as far as cuts are concerned,” Slaughter said.

Slaughter said the proposal is to reduce off-peak service and restructure routes that are considered low performing.

Under this plan, PVTA would end service earlier on “non-academic” reduced service days, reduce the frequency of evening service, have Saturday service match the Sunday schedules, and use Sunday service on all holidays.

As an example, the B43 route, which runs between Northampton and Amherst, would see the 8:15 a.m. and 4:15 p.m. express trips eliminated, the Saturday schedule during the school year would be changed to a Sunday schedule, with the frequency changing from 30 minutes to 60 minutes, and Sunday service ending at 10 p.m. during both school and no-school periods.

The x98 route, also known as Crosstown Northampton would be eliminated.

Severe cuts to service were also proposed last year, with PVTA funded at $47 million, but needing $48.2 million to maintain services. In the end, the agency eliminated four of its 63 bus routes and cut back on service to nine more, including Route 46 running from Whately, South Deerfield and Sunderland to UMass and the M40 that ran express service between Northampton and UMass.

Under the plan for next year, starting July 1, several Amherst routes would be affected. Route 30 in Amherst and Route 31 in Amherst and Sunderland would both see Sunday service eliminated entirely during “non-academic” reduced-service periods, and the frequency would be reduced from every 30 minutes to every 60 to 65 minutes during these periods.

The frequency would be cut in half after 8 p.m on Route 38, which runs between Amherst, Granby and South Hadley; all trips would be eliminated after 8 p.m on weekdays on Route 34, between Amherst and Hadley, and Route 46 would be eliminated between Amherst, Sunderland and South Deerfield.

Attempts to reach PVTA administrator Sandra Sheehan and Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, chairman of the PVTA Advisory Board, were unsuccessful Tuesday.

The public will have several opportunities to offer feedback, including in Northampton, March 1, from 4 to 5:30 p.m. and 6 to 7:30 p.m., both at Northampton City Council Chambers, and in Amherst, March 6, on the UMass campus from noon to 2 p.m., and March 7 at the Bangs Community Center from 4 to 5:30 p.m.

The advisory board will make a decision, in part based on the oral feedback and written comments, in April.

Members of the Amherst Select Board expressed concern that the changes might have a negative impact on permanent residents, who already see service diminished when college students aren’t in town.

Board member Connie Kruger said cutting weekend and holiday hours can have a negative impact on service workers who are trying to get to and from their homes and jobs.

Slaughter said PVTA recognizes that lower-income people will be more affected by the changes, which is different from the MBTA in Boston, which has riders from all income levels.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at
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