The top transportation official in Massachusetts plans to review the service cuts planned by the largest regional transit authority in western Massachusetts. Local officials and advocates for bus passengers blame inadequate state funding for the cuts.
To close a projected $1.7 million budget deficit, the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority plans to cut service on 22 bus routes. But officials say those cuts, along with belt tightening by the agency’s administration, and reducing insurance reserves will still leave a shortfall in the operations budget.
The 24-member PVTA Advisory Board, at a special meeting last week, authorized the administrator to tap the agency’s cash reserves. But that money can’t be touched without the permission of the Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack.
She said she will not rubber stamp the request.
"And make sure before they do service cuts that they have ruled out all the other options," said Pollack.
PVTA officials are proposing to draw down roughly a quarter of the $1.3 million reserve fund.
"If we get a formal request on reserves we are going to sit down and make sure that is a last resort because tapping into reserves may provide a solution for one year, but it does not provide for a balanced budget to deliver consistent and reliable service over time," Pollack said.
Pollack pointed to the MBTA and said during the last two years the perpetually financially-troubled greater Boston transit agency had cut hundreds of millions of dollars in operating expenses, and instituted “modest” fare increases while not cutting service.
"All we are asking the RTAs to do is go through the same process: take a look at their operating expense structure, take a look at their route structure, and take a look at their fare levels," Pollack said.
PVTA fares have not changed since 2008. The advisory board in 2012 rejected a proposed fare hike.
Before voting last week to approve the service cuts, advisory board members laid the blame on Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and the Democratic-dominated state legislature. Longtime advisory board member Richard Theroux of Agawam said there is a “lack of commitment” to fund the regional transit authorities.
" It is wrong," said Theroux. "A commitment for public transportation should be there."
But Pollack said state funding for the regional transit authorities had gone from $67 million a few years ago to $80 million this year.
" While I understand the RTAs would want and could undoubtedly use more than that, it is a significant increase," said Pollack
She said the state has a program to help transit agencies purchase new buses, and is also helping pay for a new bus maintenance garage the PVTA is building in Springfield.
" We have actually increased our investment on the capital side considerably over the last few years because what we here from the RTAs is that they don't have those resources," Pollack said.
Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, who chairs the PVTA Advisory Board, said the service cuts are a last resort and seeking permission from the transportation secretary to use reserve funds is a “dramatic step.”
The planned service cuts were protested by Liz Bewsee, an organizer with Arise for Social Justice, who said low-income people will be hurt the most.
" They have reserves, the should use the reserves and not make any cuts," Bewsee said.
Two routes are being eliminated and service cut on 20 routes. The changes take effect on August 27 in greater Springfield and on September 5th in the Amherst-Northampton area.