PVTA subcommittee makes route recommendations to close deficit

  • The R29 Pioneer Valley Transit Authority bus makes a stop at the Haigis Mall at the University of Massachusetts. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Passengers use a Pioneer Valley Transit Authority bus July 9, in front of Pulaski Park in Northampton. gazette file photo

Published: 7/18/2017 9:08:27 PM

SPRINGFIELD — Two bus routes would be eliminated and service for a host of others altered if the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority’s advisory board goes along with recommendations approved by a subcommittee on Tuesday.

PVTA leaders had floated even more drastic reductions in recent weeks in an effort to deal with a swelling budget gap, which stood at about $1.4 million following approval of the state budget on Monday.

On Tuesday, members of the transit authority’s route subcommittee voted to recommend a series of route changes to the full advisory board at its meeting Wednesday.

PVTA officials originally proposed eliminating eight routes and reducing service on more than a dozen others as part of its plan to close the budget shortfall.

The subcommittee, however, recommended only two routes for the ax — the Tiger Trolley that serves Mount Holyoke College and South Hadley, and the P20E weekday route, which goes from Springfield’s Union Station to Holyoke Mall.

The changes are projected to save PVTA $858,287. Those savings, combined with a $400,000 grant the agency has received, will reduce the budget shortfall to about $531,000, officials said.

“Coming into this, we were looking at more significant cuts,” said subcommittee member Paul Burns-Johnson, of Palmer. “We do have to balance costs with the service we can deliver. I don’t want to cut any route if I don’t have to but I would be hard pressed to look at these changes and say ‘Gee, you should cut that one out and put this one in.’”

The deficit grew Monday after Gov. Charlie Baker sliced $400,000 out of the state’s conference committee’s $80.4 million assistance budget for regional transit authorities. That change means PVTA will receive $22.98 million, nearly $600,000 less than anticipated.

Five College routes

PVTA Director of Operations and Planning Joshua Rickman presented the proposed service changes to the subcommittee as well as a handful of citizens who attended Tuesday’s meeting at the PVTA office in Springfield.

Multiple routes that serve the Five College area are spared from elimination in the recommendation but will experience service changes.

Saturday service for the M40 Minuteman Express, which runs between Northampton and Amherst, will be eliminated. During the week, the M40 will be replaced with eight one-way express trips — four in the morning and four in the afternoon — on the B43.

Before the proposed recommendations were addressed, UMass Graduate Student Senate President Canan Çevik read an impassioned letter to the board about the express route.

“The impact of these cuts would be felt throughout the community and would disproportionately fall upon those who do not have access to affordable alternatives,” Cevik said. “We call upon the PVTA Advisory Board to find ways to cut costs or increase revenue that do not come at the expense of the community’s most vulnerable members.”

Route 46 running from Whately, South Deerfield and Sunderland to the University of Massachusetts campus would retain four trips per weekday, with two running during the morning peak and two in the afternoon peak.

Route R29, from Holyoke and South Hadley to the UMass campus, would be reduced to two trips a day — one in the early morning and one in the late afternoon.

The UMass-Amherst Campus Shuttle Routes 34 and 35 would be untouched, as well as the Five College Route 39, which brings passengers between Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges.

UMass Student Government Vice President Lily Wallace told the board the shuttle routes provide students safe rides up icy hills during the winter and to their cars in remote parking lots on late nights.

Other changes

In Northampton, three trips per weekday to the Survival Center during food distribution hours would be retained on the X98 Crosstown. Another route, the R44, would be modified to serve Jackson and Barrett streets.

“The state budget has required us to go this route,” subcommittee member Peter Miller, of Westfield, said. “This is a long-term problem that we are fixing because there is no indication things are going to change at the state at any time in the near future. We have to make more structural decisions that are permanent as opposed to limping along to try and do things like not fund the insurance reserves — those are just stopgaps.”

The transit authority is eyeing two options to close its remaining budget gap. One involves eliminating a $250,000 contribution to its insurance reserve for the year, as well as seeking permission from the state to use its restricted reserve funds.

The lone dissenting vote at Tuesday’s subcommittee meeting was rider representative Patrick Burke, who said it was his role to speak as forcefully for riders as he possibly could.

“We’re already looking at a situation where even with these cuts, we still have to go into the reserve funds,” Burke said.

Burke asked if PVTA had looked further into getting extra funding from the Five Colleges and other institutions that give money to supplement routes, rather than affect college students, low-income people and those who are transit-dependent.

“I’m not convinced that we have to make any cuts until we’ve done the due diligence of reaching out to these other stakeholders,” Burke said.

PVTA Administrator Sandra E. Sheehan said moving forward, the transit authority has made a commitment to look at all the service it offers as well as meeting with all stakeholders.

“We are trying to be very creative. The staff is working very hard to try and come up with different solutions to some of the different issues we have,” Sheehan said.

“As you said, I don’t see this getting any better unless the state revenues, by some luck, get really higher.

“It was made very clear during the public hearings that riders, people that use the PVTA system, rely on our service to get to work, to get to school, to get to medical appointments … this is a service that they need to maintain their quality of life.”

The PVTA Advisory Board Finance & Audit Subcommittee will meet at 11 a.m. Wednesday to discuss the fiscal 2018 budget. The full advisory board will convene at noon for a special meeting on the recommended service changes.

Emily Cutts can be reached at ecutts@gazettenet.com.


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