BY EMMA RUBIN ’20 AND EILEEN O’GRADY ’18
A group of approximately 20 to 30 protesters gathered outside the Old Chapel on the UMass Amherst campus last Monday, holding signs and chanting. “FUND PUBLIC TRANSIT,” one sign read. “PUBLIC TRANSIT IS AN ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUE,” said another.
Inside, Massachusetts legislators were holding a hearing on Gov. Charlie Baker’s (R) 2019 budget. Outside, the protesters voiced their opposition to the proposed changes for Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA) bus routes, which the company is planning in response to inadequate funding. The group was not able to speak at the hearing, which was only open to government agencies.
Many of the activists at the rally consider the issue of transportation to go arm in arm with issues of racial justice, social justice and environmental concerns. Patrick Burke, a representative from United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) in Northampton felt the budget cut was an attack on the poor and working class who rely on buses to get to work or shop for necessities.
“You have to look at this issue as intersectional — we have to make a common cause for each other,” he said. “Public transportation is a right, not just something from the rich and white.”
Gov. Baker’s proposed budget allocates only 81.4 million to the transportation system. While grants during the last fiscal year allowed the PVTA to sustain most of its services, this year’s financial breakdown will leave a budget deficit of $3.1 million due to increased fuel costs, increased wage rates, increased insurance costs and general inflation, according to PVTA Director Sandra Sheehan. Transportation for Massachusetts (T4MA), a coalition of organizations working on improving the state’s public transportation network, said that the state would need to allocate at least 88 million to maintain the bus system.
The changes that the PVTA has proposed to manage the funding deficit include reduced service, increased fares and a newly proposed disability tax, which would charge disabled passengers an additional $6.25 when traveling outside the average 15-mile radius. Those changes are not sitting well with much of the bus-riding public.
“Low income communities are disproportionately affected by these cuts,” said Camille Gladieux ’18, president of the Mount Holyoke Student Government Association. According to Gladieux, there has not been an increase in the transportation budget for four years. “This raise in price could be the difference between paying a bill and riding the bus,” she said.
On Tuesday, the day after the rally, the Mount Holyoke College Senate held a hearing on the proposed changes for PVTA routes. Changes that would directly impact the Mount Holyoke community include reduced service after 8 p.m. on weekdays for the 38 bus, as well as making Saturday’s schedule the same as Sunday’s. The 39 stop at Mount Holyoke College would be eliminated entirely, meaning that students would have to transfer to the 39 after traveling to Hampshire College. The 39 would also alternate between traveling to the Hampshire Mall and Northampton beginning at 6 p.m. on weekdays.
The reduced service and change in fare would go into effect at the start of the next fiscal year, July 1, 2018. They could modify up to 25 routes, but the suggested modifications to the 38 and 39 would be most directly relevant to the Mount Holyoke community.
Tuesday night in Hooker Auditorium, Sheehan provided information to students on the economic situation of the PVTA, the proposed changes and how modifications will affect spending. The meeting adopted a town-hall style format, giving students the opportunity to ask questions and make comments. Sheehan said that all comments would be sent to the PVTA Advisory Board, the body that reviews and approves fare and service changes.
Students who spoke at the meeting emphasized the importance of PVTA availability on Saturday nights for safety reasons. Many cited the PVTA as an alternative to drunk driving, noting that the bus prevents students from being stranded on an unfamiliar campus late at night. Speakers also brought attention to South Hadley’s limited nightlife, and importance of students being able to attend events off-campus and patronize local businesses along the bus line, in addition to accessing classes during the academic week.
A delegation from Berkshire Hills Music Academy was also present at the hearing and expressed several concerns regarding safety, promotion of independence and general accessibility for their community.
David Elvin, transit planner with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, said that of the buses operating within the Five College area, 90 percent of the riders are students. The Five Colleges pay their respective towns to subsidize the bus system.
The PVTA advisory board will review the suggestions gathered from the various town hall meetings on April 11 and will set a budget by June 1. The Massachusetts Congress will approve their official budget by July 1 and it is possible that they will allocate more money to public transit organizations like the PVTA. In that case, PVTA officials said that they will have plans in place to reinstate certain services that an increased budget would allow.
The hearings across Western Massachusetts allow PVTA officials to gain deeper insight as to what routes to prioritize for riders. Still, PVTA officials and SGA E-board members urged senators and constituents to contact state representatives and ask them to support an increased budget for public transit services.
“At this school we tend to reflect online and that is not effective,” Chair of Halls Francesca Eremeeva ’20 said, “These representatives are not going to read your Facebook status.”
Chair of Senate Liz Brown ’20 emphasized the larger impact of this issue. “Right now, we are talking about Western Massachusetts, but public transportation in general is in a crisis across the country,” she said.
Shaheen ended the Mount Holyoke forum on a positive note: “I am very hopeful that the [Massachusetts] Senate and House will allocate more money, and in the end, the regional transit authorities will get the funding they need.”
Additional reporting by Gabby Raymond ’20.