PVTA budget woes bring questions about Five College service

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

Published: 7/18/2017 9:10:28 PM

As the advisory board of the Valley’s public bus service meets Wednesday to decide whether to cut service to close a roughly $1.4 million deficit, ridership figures suggest the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority may be collecting between $180,000 and $500,000 less than it could.

During the academic year, PVTA figures show that people took nearly 820,000 rides on the 38, the 39, the B43 and the M40 — four main routes serving the Five Colleges. Riders on these routes pay no fare.

If those riders had paid the standard fare of $1.25 per ride, they could have contributed just over $1 million to cover the cost of bus operations, according to calculations by the Gazette. If the figure was lowered to an average 85 cents per ride to account for various fare discounts, that could generate about $700,000 in revenue.

Instead, the colleges contribute just over $500,000.

What accounts for the apparent revenue gap on the buses run to serve students, faculty and staff?  And given the budget crunch, should the schools increase their contributions before PVTA cuts service on many of those same routes?

University of Massachusetts professor Andrew Donson thinks the schools should pay more.

“When millions of riders don't pay $1.25 fare, that adds up quickly,” he said. “The public has a right to know whether its bus system is losing out on millions of dollars of revenue."

In a recent op-ed for the Gazette, Donson argued against a proposal to cancel the M40 and the 39, the Five Colleges express buses linking Northampton, Amherst and South Hadley. He said the PVTA could at least partly close the revenue gap by collecting more from the schools.

“Above all, right now, it seems that the towns and the state have been subsidizing the Five College buses, not the other way around,” Donson wrote. “For the sake of fairness, the Five Colleges should give the PVTA retroactive subsidies to maintain the M40 and the 39.”

Neal Abraham, executive director of Five Colleges, Inc., rejected complaints of a cash gap. The Gazette’s figures are “irrelevant because that's not the arrangement we have,” he said.

Instead, he said the Five Colleges have historically relied on an arrangement with the PVTA in which they cover costs for providing bus service between the colleges and affected towns, allowing townspeople as well as students, faculty and staff to ride for free. As an added benefit, he said, the Five Colleges’ support for the bus routes serves to increase PVTA ridership statistics and draw more state revenue.

“You could equally say, why don’t the towns pay anything?” he said. “If the PVTA thinks it's not fair, they should come talk to us. Which they haven’t.”

Sandra Sheehan, who recently took over as PVTA administrator, said it would be a good idea for the agency to look at whether the Five Colleges’ $515,000 annual contribution matches the value received from the bus service. “At this point, we are looking at any source of revenue,” she said.

At the same time, Sheehan said the actual fare revenue figure would likely be less than $1 million, given that riders who are children, seniors or have impaired mobility pay a fare of 60 cents and riders who are transferring buses pay only 25 cents.

Revenue shortfall

PVTA’s  maroon, white and blue buses are a familiar sight in the Valley. They connect Williamsburg to Ware,  Leverett to Longmeadow and all the cities, towns and villages in between. But service cuts to make up for the deficit could mean the reduction or elimination of 16 routes including the M40 and the 39, both of which are subsidized by the Five Colleges. (A PVTA subcommittee makes its recommendations. See related story, A1.)

Earlier in the summer, the transit authority held eight hearings to gauge public support for route changes and service reductions. Many riders who spoke at the hearings and in interviews with the Gazette said eliminating or reducing routes could make it hard for them to get to school, work, the store and medical appointments.

Mount Holyoke College employee Natasha Rubanova spoke out against the proposed elimination of PVTA’s 39 route at a June 27 hearing in South Hadley. She lives in Northampton and said she rides the bus almost daily.

“I really rely on those routes to get to work and back from work,” she said. “If these routes are eliminated, I will suffer significant financial consequences.”

When the PVTA advisory board meets Wednesday afternoon in Springfield to consider cuts in service, they will be grappling with a projected $1.39 million budget deficit born of increasing expenses and declining revenues.

For fiscal 2018 , the PVTA anticipates that expenses will total $48.2 million, about $867,000 higher than the fiscal 2017, which ended in June.

Increased labor costs and a decrease in ridership both contribute to the shortfall, Sheehan said. Labor accounts for 80 percent of the PVTA’s costs and union contracts stipulate a yearly wage increase, she said.

At the same time, revenues from some sources have dropped. PVTA officials say they saw a 7 percent drop in ridership last year, which not only reduces the amount paid in fares but also reduces the agency’s allocation from the state’s regional transit budget.

In the 2018 Massachusetts State budget, Sheehan said the PVTA is set to receive $22.9 million — $600,000 less than last year.

On the Five College end, administrators say that they would appreciate more clarity on how costs are calculated. Abraham said he has asked the PVTA multiple times to see a breakdown of costs but has yet to receive one.

He said  the relationship between the colleges and the PVTA has a long history. The colleges used to operate private shuttles between the schools before they merged with the PVTA in 1977. Part of the agreement, Abraham said, was that the colleges would pay for additional buses as long as the PVTA kept those routes open.  

“These are routes that are only there because the Five Colleges are willing to pay the additional costs,” Abraham said.  

If the costs of the buses went significantly up — or the lines stopped running— he said the colleges would consider returning to private buses.

Before that happens, he said, an open and realistic conversation needs to happen.

“Let’s sit down and talk about it,” he said.

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