Metro

Transit systems across Mass. say they need more state aid

The Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority is considering cutting service that it had established just three years ago. Above: An MVRTA bus in Haverhill.
Jim Davis/Globe Staff/File
The Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority is considering cutting service that it had established just three years ago. Above: An MVRTA bus in Haverhill.

While the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority receives massive attention from Beacon Hill and the public, the providers of public transit in Worcester and Springfield say they are being starved by years of financial neglect.

Transportation officials and local advocates say that underfunding of the regional transit authorities is affecting riders, resulting in cuts in bus service in the state’s second- and third-largest cities.

“I’m baffled” said Sandra Sheehan, administrator of the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, which is facing a $3.1 million budget deficit. “The most needy low-income and minority populations have no choice but to rely on our transportation. I just don’t understand why the resources are not allocated.”

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The PVTA, which provides more than 11 million trips a year in Springfield and surrounding communities and to nearby colleges, just agreed to raise fares by 20 percent, to $1.50 per bus ride, as well as to implement major service cuts on nights and weekends.

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The Worcester Regional Transit Authority, facing a $900,000 deficit, is considering its second service cut in as many years, which could result in less-frequent service on some routes, reduced weekend service on some routes, or no service at all on some.

The WRTA provides more than 3 million rides per year.

Lynn Norris of Worcester said that many riders like her rely on the bus as their only way to shop, attend community meetings, and go to medical appointments.

“Everybody can’t afford to drive,” she said. “If a city is not mobile, well, I think you have a dead city.”

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Service reductions in both regions could be averted, officials said, if the state provides more money in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The agencies want funding for all 15 regional transit authorities increased by about $8 million, to $88 million. They argue that the state’s share of their funding has not kept pace with increasing costs, such as for employee health insurance and scheduled pay raises for union workers.

The regional transit authorities also collect fares, sell advertising, and receive municipal and federal funding, but they largely rely on state funding for operations.

Since 2014, the state has provided a minimum of $80 million. The figure jumped in 2015 to $82 million, held steady in 2016, and decreased to $80.4 million last year.

Governor Charlie Baker has proposed keeping the total at $80.4 million for another year. In March, he noted that the agencies had received a huge increase in funding in 2014, from $67 million to $80 million, suggesting they should have enough money to operate at that level. But advocates say many of the regional operations increased service as a result of that funding boost and are now being forced to pare back.

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For example, the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority is considering cutting service that it had established only in 2015, said Jeannette Orsino, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Regional Transit Authorities.

The Cape Cod authority, in contrast, has increased federal funding, benefiting from a partnership with the Steamship Authority ferry service, Orsino said.

The Baker administration has provided documents showing that many of the transit systems had not increased fares in years. The MBTA has increased fares three times since 2012. The documents also show the state has increased its funding for capital projects, such as a new operations and maintenance facility in Springfield.

While the MBTA always struggles to square its $2 billion budget, it has received more money for repair and maintenance under Baker. The T also has a steady funding stream from a portion of the state sales tax, while the regional authorities rely on the Legislature for year-to-year assistance.

Last week, the House of Representatives proposed trimming funding for the regional authorities even further, penciling in $80 million for the next fiscal year in its draft budget.

Representative William Straus, who leads the House’s transportation initiatives, said his colleagues may be persuaded to provide more money if the regional systems are required to prove they are achieving certain service goals in order to receive the funding.

The House could still adjust the funding during upcoming debate. The Department of Transportation also said that state officials are open to bolstering funding in exchange for new accountability measures.

Jacquelyn Goddard, a spokeswoman for the department, added that officials “encourage the authorities to evaluate ridership, fares, and current routes, before deciding to reduce service for customers.”

Thomas O’Brien, a longtime bus rider from Holyoke, worries the PVTA is caught in a downward spiral, in which service cuts lead to fewer riders, which leads to more cuts, and so on.

Some lawmakers have expressed similar worries about such a “death spiral,” including Senate President Harriette Chandler, who represents Worcester.

Chandler declined to say whether the Senate would push for more funding, but said the regional authorities “need some help.”

“This is a lifeline,” she said. “This is like the MBTA is to Boston.”

Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamtvaccaro.