You can’t get there from here: Massachusetts transportation problems extend beyond Boston

  • Passengers board a PVTA bus in Amherst.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 10/31/2019 1:40:18 PM

If you live outside of greater Boston and depend on public transportation, it’s likely that commuting has become a daily challenge. While Massachusetts has 15 regional transit authorities (RTAs) providing local bus service in communities throughout the commonwealth, none of them can afford to provide late-night service, and many do not run on Sundays or even on weekends.

“I just wish (the schedule) was later. Trying to get stuff done in one day can be tough,” said Tammy Castro, a resident of Attleboro. “And sometimes the buses run early and the next one runs late, so you can get stuck somewhere for an hour.”

Currently, RTAs have two main types of service: fixed-route bus runs with regular schedules, set routes and times; and “demand response,” providing on-demand service or paratransit for seniors and people with disabilities. Some provide services like commuter rail shuttles.

Southeastern Regional Transit Authority, which serves New Bedford, Fall River and nearby communities, doesn’t run on Sundays. The same holds true for the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority and Cape Ann Transit Authority. The Franklin Regional Transit Authority, which serves Franklin County, North Quabbin and nearby areas, doesn’t provide service on weekends.

The inconvenience stems from the infrequency of service and limited schedule of routes, said Matt Casale of MASSPIRG, regarding the hourly basis and daytime-only schedule in some regions, noting it could make it difficult for students to rely on the bus. He also mentioned limited service between RTA service areas, which can bring challenges to people who travel between regions.

In other cases, RTA service isn’t synced up with Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) commuter rail service, meaning commuters have to drive to the train station instead of being able to rely on the bus.

“When people get off the commuter rail, they want to be able to hop on an RTA bus to get home. Or when they get off an RTA bus, they want to be able to get a bike share to get home,” Casale said.

Francis Gay, the administrator from Greater Attleboro Taunton Transit Authority (GATRA), said there have been a number of requests for Sunday service from different regions served by GATRA. Currently, only one GATRA route runs on Sundays between Wheaton College and the Mansfield MBTA commuter rail station in Norton, and it doesn’t operate during winter and summer breaks.

“We are trying to find additional funding to start service on Sundays,” Gay said. “Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to get additional funding from the state.”

In June, Lowell Regional Transit Authority (LRTA) launched a nine-month pilot program for a Sunday schedule on selected routes.

James Scanlon, an LRTA administrator, and Ali Bent, the manager of grants and planning, said it’s a “good thing” and “something they should do” to provide Sunday service in one of the largest cities in Massachusetts. The LRTA already has submitted another application for FY2020 funding to extend the pilot program, in order to make proper adjustments and improve the service. 

“I don’t think the nine months is enough time for us to decide conclusively whether it’s working or not working,” Scanlon said. “You need more time than that.”

RTAs are funded through a combination of state and federal funding, local assessments, fares and other revenue, such as advertising. The Transportation Finance Act in 2013 proposed annual funding increases of 2.5% from the state. 

Each RTA’s budget breaks down differently, but on average, they receive 39% of their operating funding from the state, 24% from federal grants, 20% from local funds, 13% from fare revenues, and 4% from other sources, according to the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts.

The RTAs received a 2.5% increase in state funding between fiscal years 2015 and 2016, but, in fiscal year 2017, state funding remained level at $82 million. Then, in fiscal year 2018, state funding was reduced to $80.4 million.

In FY2020, the Baker administration proposed a $90.5 million funding, including $3.5 million from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation on a discretionary basis.

Depending on the region, service decisions — including canceling routes or deciding not to provide certain services — are based on budget, not based on need.

Springfield-based Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA), which has the highest ridership with more than 12 million passengers every year, has raised fares and last summer cut down bus routes to deal with its budget crunch. Franklin Regional Transit Authority also raised its fares last July.

“This is PVTA’s first fare increase in almost a decade,” PVTA stated in its 2019 annual report. It also indicated that the service change and fare increase allowed PVTA to balance the budget while having an impact on the fewest number of passengers and retaining the majority of service.

The unpredictability and inconsistency of RTA funding — which is proposed by the governor, and then sent to the Legislature every year — can become problematic. 

There is no guarantee that the RTAs will receive the same or a greater base level of funding from the state year to year, Casale explained. These problems make it difficult for regional transit authorities to complete their annual budgets, plan routes and determine service levels at the beginning of the year.

“When [RTAs] don’t know what their budget is going to look like, that makes it harder for them to operate,” Casale said. He also said it causes problems to the riders as they need to know that their transportation options aren’t going to change drastically when they make important, long-term life decisions such as moving, accepting a new job or attending a certain school. 

“Losing a bus route, or even just losing frequency on a bus route, can mean an inability to get to work or school,” Casale said. “It can mean a severing of community connections.”

The Task Force on Regional Transit Authority Performance and Funding — which was created last fall and included state legislators, RTA administrators and rider advocates — released a report in April with 24 recommendations to the 15 state RTAs for providing and improving transit services that meet identified community needs and maximize ridership, while ensuring they receive adequate funding.

Most recommendations focused on improving accountability and quality of service, providing reliable paratransit and also developing pilot programs that include innovative transit delivery models. 

State reps. Steven Howitt, R-Seekonk, and Norman Orrall, R-Lakeville, members of the Legislature’s Committee on Transportation, said RTAs need to review ridership and improve efficiency, instead of increasing fixed-route bus frequency “without any passengers on the bus.”

Howitt also said that other services could be promoted, such as “on-demand” service, requested by phone, for the elderly and people with disabilities.  

Mia Ping-Chieh Chen writes for the Gazette from the Boston University Statehouse Program.

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