Editorial: PVTA, Five Colleges must preserve bus routes

Published: 07-18-2017 7:49 PM

The potential scaling back of Pioneer Valley Transit Authority bus routes serving the Five Colleges is troubling because hundreds of people would lose public transportation vital to their studies and livelihoods.

We urge the PVTA advisory board, which is scheduled to meet Wednesday, to delay any decisions about altering those routes so alternatives can be explored. That is especially important after today’s Gazette report raising questions about whether Five Colleges Inc. is fully covering the cost of running free bus service serving the campuses during the academic year.

We hope that the transit authority and Five Colleges — which have a 40-year partnership — work together during the coming weeks to preserve the free routes that are a hallmark of the academic consortium in Amherst, Northampton and South Hadley.

The PVTA announced in June that it was considering changes in 16 of its 63 routes, including several that connect the campuses at Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges and the University of Massachusetts. A subcommittee of the PVTA advisory board Tuesday voted to recommend changes in 14 routes.

Among the imperiled routes are the M40 Minuteman Express, which connects Northampton and Amherst; Route 46 from Whately, South Deerfield and Sunderland to UMass; and Route R29 from Holyoke and South Hadley to UMass.

The authority says the service cuts are needed because it faces a $1.39 million deficit for the coming year, resulting from a drop in ridership and reduced state funds.

During a series of hearings over the past month in Amherst, South Hadley, Northampton and Sunderland, students and employees at the schools described why the bus service is essential.

Natasha Rubanova, an employee of Mount Holyoke, said she commutes from the campus in South Hadley to the her home in Northampton on the 39 route, and has no other way to get to work. “I planned my life around this route. If these routes are eliminated, I will suffer significant financial consequences,” she said.

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Raina Franklin Baker is a student at Hampshire College who lives off campus and uses the PVTA to get to classes and work. “I don’t have a car. I’m low-income. I take the bus every single day and it’s important to my financial and educational well-being,” she said.

The colleges and UMass say they were not consulted about the potential cutbacks until the public hearings began, long after academic schedules were set for the next year. “It’s therefore baffling and discouraging that neither PVTA staff members nor the PVTA Advisory Board consulted with us, their long-term partner, when they began considerations of eliminating some of the Five College bus routes,” states a letter signed July 7 by Neal Abraham, executive director of Five Colleges Inc., and Hampshire College President Jonathan Lash, who also is president of the Five College board of directors.

Five Colleges Inc. contributes about $515,000 annually to pay the operating costs of the routes during the academic year. Bus travel from September until early May is free for college students, faculty and staff, and fares are not collected. PVTA records show that there were nearly 820,000 rides on the four main routes serving the Five Colleges during the last academic year. At the standard $1.25 fare, those riders would have paid just over $1 million. In reality, that figure would likely be lower because some riders qualify for reduced fares. But it seems likely that the Five College contribution falls far below the actual cost.

Abraham says he has asked the PVTA multiple times to see a breakdown of the costs of operating the Five College service. “Those are routes that are only there because the Five Colleges are willing to pay the additional costs,” he told Gazette reporter Rebecca Mullen. So far, Abraham said, he has not gotten that information.

Before changes are made in any of those routes, leaders of the PVTA and Five Colleges need time to calculate the true cost of operating the bus service, and reach agreement on an equitable formula to pay for it. A hasty decision is unwise because too much is at stake for the hundreds of people who have come to depend on that public transportation.