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Regional transit systems hope to gain from funding bill

Passengers boarded a Berkshire Regional Transit Authority bus at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield earlier this month.

Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

Passengers boarded a Berkshire Regional Transit Authority bus at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield earlier this month.

Josh Colon travels four hours per day, five days per week, to get from his North Adams home to classes at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield and back. By car, the trip would take about 45 minutes each way. But Colon, 22, relies on a bus — part of the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority — that takes almost three times as long because of indirect routes, infrequent service, and a long wait as he transfers. Sometimes, he must leave class early, before 5 p.m., to catch the last bus that can get him home.

So when he hears Boston residents complain about the MBTA’s 10- to 15-minute delays and 12:30 a.m. closures, he finds it hard to have sympathy.

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“If I miss the bus by one minute, I have to wait another hour,” Colon said. “It’s kind of almost laughable for me to hear, ‘Oh, we have to wait five extra minutes for a bus.’ We have to wait so long for buses out here.”

As legislators and Governor Deval Patrick lock horns over different proposals to fix the state’s transportation woes, a spotlight has been shined on the state’s 15 Regional Transit Authorities — bus services in parts of the state that do not receive multistop service from the MBTA.

Patrick’s original proposal would have given the bus services a combined sum of $100 million annually; bills passed two weeks ago by the House and Senate would allow the transit authorities to end the practice of paying for their operating budgets with borrowed money, and also includes an additional $12 million per year for modest service improvements.

Josh Colon waited with others to board a Berkshire Regional Transit Authority bus. Colon travels four hours per day, five days per week, to get from his North Adams home to classes at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield and back.

Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

Josh Colon waited with others to board a Berkshire Regional Transit Authority bus. Colon travels four hours per day, five days per week, to get from his North Adams home to classes at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield and back.

Transportation advocates fear that $12 million will not be enough to fund the regional transit systems, and Beverly Scott, general manager of the MBTA, who also oversees the regional transit authorities, agrees.

Twelve million, she said, isn’t enough to keep the bus services robust or provide service increases.

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But Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said he believes the House bill will prevent any immediate cuts in services or fare hikes on the regional bus services, along with the MBTA.

“The House plan addresses all of those issues,” DeLeo said.

It’s a pivotal time for the transit systems, which have long been viewed as the T’s forgotten stepsister. Jeannette Orsino, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Regional Transit Authorities, said taxpayers must realize that many residents depend on the buses — however infrequent — to get to jobs and school, and to perform basic errands.

“We should have public transit that’s accessible and reliable and convenient for other parts of the state,” Orsino said.

At least 25 percent of the cost of each of the state’s regional bus systems are paid for by the cities and towns it serves. In recent years, the bus systems have been plagued with budget cuts and service eliminations. In many towns, buses run once every half-hour or hour, stop running at 7 p.m. on weekdays, and do not operate at all on Sundays.

Still, advocates say, the bus systems serve as a lifeline for many — students, senior citizens, people with disabilities, families without cars. The lack of a dependable public transit option, they say, has hampered quality of life for many.

“There are too many people in Berkshire County who are contributing to the sales tax,” said Gary Shepard, administrator of the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority. “And they’re not complaining about that, but they would like to enjoy the same service.”

“We want to be able to respond to our customers,” he continued. “We want to be able to provide seven-day-a-week service. We don’t want people hanging around on street corners waiting an hour for a bus.”

That’s a familiar experience for Ana Sanoguel, 52, who lives in Springfield and does not own a car because it’s too expensive. She takes buses everywhere — for medical appointments, for shopping, to visit family and friends — and if she misses the last bus at 6:30 or 7 p.m., she said, she must take a taxi home, which takes a toll on her limited budget.

“Transportation in Springfield has to get better,” Sanoguel said. “They think everybody out here has a car and can pay for a car, but that’s not everybody.”

A report released last month by MassINC, a research group focused on public policy issues, argued the regional bus services were key to fostering economic growth in the state’s up-and-coming cities. Additional investment in the transit system would provide big returns for taxpayers by encouraging use of the commuter rail system and providing stronger links between Boston and cities and towns further afield. Even so, the report acknowledged, many residents remain cynical about the bus systems’ value.

“As state leaders debate and structure new RTA funding, it is critical that they reenvision the role of these agencies in an integrated, public transit system that embodies a statewide culture of public transit,” the report said.

Benjamin Forman, research director at MassINC and one of the authors of the report, described it as an if-you-build-it-they-will-come approach: Added funding to the regional transit authorities, he said, could turn the bus systems from a second-class form of transportation into an enticing option for everyone, even if they have access to a car.

“I think we have this culture of the T in Massachusetts, where everyone knows and loves the T, whether they ride it or not,” Forman said. “These bus services really need to be something the state can take a lot of pride in. For a long time, buses were something we were kind of ashamed of.”

In addition to expanding geographic service areas and extending hours, Forman said, more funding would allow the bus systems to make investments that have appealed to new riders in other states, such as ecofriendly hybrid engines, real-time bus tracking apps for smartphones, and handsome cosmetic improvements.

“All this stuff is making the bus something that could actually be an attractive service,” Forman said, “and could make the Gateway Cities become something more attractive, too.”

Still, funding for transportation improvements is limited, and many have been skeptical for years that the buses warrant a larger piece of the funding pie.

In a 2011 opinion piece in the MetroWest Daily News , Charles Chieppo, a public policy advocate, argued that the money would be better spent on the T.

“Regional Transit Authorities are about the last place revenue from a [vehicle miles traveled] tax should be applied,” Chieppo wrote. “No amount of revitalization will turn Brockton into Boston. Investing funds from new revenue streams into Regional Transit Authorities would provide little or no return.”

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation has proposed giving the RTAs a smaller helping of the transportation revenue pie, $50 million, half of the governor’s suggested amount. Michael J. Widmer, the group’s president, acknowledged that the regional bus services have received short shrift in recent years, but wondered whether $100 million was too much.

“I don’t know if that’s defensible, given the limited dollars,” Widmer said. “It clearly deserves additional funding . . . but the question is, how much?”

Any increase in spending on the buses, Widmer argued, should be coupled with an increase in transparency and accountability for the regional transit authorities, which would help taxpayers ensure that the buses are as popular and as efficient as advocates suggest.

Orsino bristled at the idea that the bus services are inefficient or underused.

“It’s not like, ‘Give us money and we’ll run buses that won’t have people on them,’ ” Orsino said. “That doesn’t happen.”

Ellen Kennedy, president of Berkshire Community College, said a large portion of her students do not have cars, and therefore can’t take evening courses, participate in extracurricular activities that meet on nights or weekends, or enroll in the schools’ culinary program, where classes usually run from 4 to 6 p.m. Many have had to make special arrangements with professors, attending only part of class and completing extra make-up work at home.

“It causes our students some heartache, and some lost opportunities,” Kennedy said.

More frequent service and a wider network of bus stops, Kennedy said, would serve her students well. But nothing would be more life-changing for the Berkshire Community College student body, she said, than extending service just a few hours later in the evening.

Colon, who earned an associate’s degree in engineering, technology and manufacturing last December, and is now pursuing a second degree, said he’s committed to his dreams of running a manufacturing company one day.

He’s an optimistic person — “I’ve got a lot of positive Zen going for me,” he jokes — but even so, he said, his wearying daily commute often makes him question whether pursuing an education is the right thing for him to do.

“We’re not expecting it to be like some of those bigger areas,” Colon said. “We just want to have something reliable to use.”

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.

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