Dee Marshall, 73, of Ware, sits in the front seat of the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA) shuttle bus wrapped in her pink coat. She had a doctor’s appointment in Longmeadow today, as she does every Friday. She left her house early this morning to catch the bus and then switch to another bus. After her appointment, she waited for a bus to take her on the return trip. She is just now nearing home. It is 4 p.m. and this simple trip to the doctor has taken nearly all day.
“I just wish they ran more (often),” said Marshall of the buses. “I’d love to be able to participate in things, but can’t because the shuttle stops running,” fairly early. She also lamented that there is no weekend service in her area.
Western Massachusetts has a public transportation problem. For residents without a car in many towns around the Pioneer Valley, the options for getting around town to run errands or get back and forth to work are extremely limited, and that’s to say nothing about the difficulty getting to urban centers like Boston. If residents can’t get a ride from family or a neighbor, they often rely on the bus services like the PVTA, which may wind up cutting service due to budget concerns. Until there are more funds available, Valley residents who are underserved by transportation services will have to continue to cobble together means of getting around town.
The PVTA serves communities from Williamsburg and Hadley in Hampshire County to the towns of Longmeadow and Agawam on the Connecticut border. In the northern Valley, Franklin County operates its own public transit system. The Franklin Regional Transit Authority serves 41 towns in the county, from Hawley east to Orange, and from the New Hampshire border south to Whatley. The FRTA offers a fairly comprehensive network of buses, albeit on a much smaller scale than the PVTA.
The PVTA runs a robust schedule of routes in cities, such as Amherst, Springfield, and Holyoke. However, the routes that serve some of the smaller towns run far less frequently, with gaps of two hours or more at some stops. Waiting for the next bus can add hours to a rider’s day.
The PVTA is aware of the gaps in schedule coverage, said Brandy Pelletier, a spokesperson for the bus company. Instead of increasing services, however, they had to implement cutbacks in fall 2017 due to decreased funding from the state. There are more proposed cutbacks in service which, if implemented, would go into effect July 1, 2018.
“An average bus trip costs about $2.97 per passenger; the current $1.25 full adult fare is only 42 percent of the full cost of the trip,” said Pelletier. “The remaining costs are paid from state contract assistance,” and “limited federal sources.” Towns serviced by the PVTA also pay an assessment, “based on the annual miles traveled in that set community.” Pelletier said the PVTA has also proposed a 25 percent rate hike as a revenue-generating action.
“I’m okay with a rate hike,” said Marshall. “We’re probably well below what other cities pay,” in bus fare rates. The cost isn’t what bothers Marshall, it’s the limits to mobility. “I’d like to be able to participate things but can’t because the shuttle doesn’t run that late,” she said. The Ware Shuttle ends service at 5:15 p.m.
“All the Pioneer Valley legislators are hoping to protect PVTA funding in this coming budget,” said Solomon Goldstein-Rose, State Representative from Amherst.
“There’s no clear-cut answer,” said John Scibak, state Representative from South Hadley. “The goal is always to try to increase funds. It’s a serious concern.”
When it comes to the daily operation of the PVTA, Scibak said, “the costs are far greater than in eastern Mass.” The Metro Boston Transit Authority, which is partially funded by state income tax has a much larger budget than the PVTA and a much larger ridership to go with it. “Clearly there is a disparity. We’ll never be Boston, but we’re taxpayers in Western Mass., too, and deserve services,” Scibak said.
A meeting organized by Congressman Richard Neal was held on February 13 to discuss possible strategies to cope with western Massachusetts’ public transportation challenges. State Representative Alex Vega of Holyoke proposed an investment in electric buses for the PVTA to cut down on future repair costs and increase the quality of life in regards to getting around town.
A strategy to increase public transportation that has been in effect in metro Boston for approximately a year, is to partner the public transportation system with a ride-sharing service. Goldstein-Rose is a proponent of this idea.
“I do also see a future of public transit in Western Mass. that is more flexible, perhaps with Uber-like systems to optimize routes in real time, all of which will become more practical as self-driving vehicles are deployed in the next decade,” Goldstein-Rose said.
Currently, Uber and Lyft include the Pioneer Valley in their service areas. Both companies advertise rates of 95 cents per mile and 11 cents minute. For example, a five-mile trip that takes eight minutes will cost approximately $10. This option is far more expensive than the cost of bus fare but much more convenient in terms of wait time.
A focus on seniors
For seniors, there are some new options for transportation.
The Councils on Aging in the towns of Northampton, Longmeadow, East Longmeadow, and Hampden, are engaged in pilot programs with the PVTA to provide seniors with in-town transportation at a lower cost than the PVTA could, said Pelletier.
“PVTA is exploring innovative ways to provide service to all communities. Funding partnerships can help ease the cost of adding more service,” Pelletier said.
At the Palmer Council of Aging, Executive Director Erin Pincince said that they run two handicap accessible vans Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. and have volunteer drivers who take seniors to doctor’s appointments. “Even with that, we’re always refusing people who need the service. It’s so booked up,” Pincince said.
“Socialization is huge for elders,” said Pincince. “They need to visit and talk to other people.” Many of the seniors who have no way to travel around town become involuntary shut-ins. That was the case for Palmer resident Naomie Gibson, 62. After suffering multiple strokes 10 years ago, she was left with a severe visual impairment which renders her unable to drive. For nine years, Gibson rarely left her home, except in the company of her husband, upon whom she was reliant. Gibson ended up in a deep depression. Last year, however, a friend told her about the transportation to the Council on Aging and the senior center.
“I got a lot of my independence back,” Gibson said. Not only does she visit the senior center, and get rides to the grocery store, she has also found that she can use the PVTA to get to the YMCA in Wilbraham for physical therapy in the pool. Her depression has lessened and she said, “it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
For those who are not elderly, there are a few other options for getting around town. A commuter van service called the Quaboag Connector services Belchertown, Palmer, Ware, and Monson within the Valley. It prioritizes rides for people who need to get to work or school but is available to anyone in their service area. The cost is reasonable at $2 per ride, but riders must arrange their trips two days in advance and there is a possibility that the ride may be canceled or rescheduled. Marshall isn’t crazy about the service.
“It’s not that dependable,” Marshall said. “They don’t always answer the phone or return your call.”