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Regional Transit: Engines Of Economic Opportunity That Need Fuel

Pioneer Valley Transit Authority.PNG
Recently opened Union Station in Springfield weaves together the city, its surrounding communities, and the University of Massachusetts/Amherst with bus service.
Pioneer Valley Transit Authority/wikimedia

To the joy of children across Massachusetts, most of the state’s yellow school buses will begin their summer hiatus in a few weeks. To the consternation of businesses, workers and community leaders, regional transit authority (RTA) buses may not be far behind.

When the Baker administration submitted its budget proposal for the coming fiscal year that begins on July 1, it once-again level funded the state’s 15 RTAs, which serve communities across Massachusetts. Due to rising costs, level funding amounts to a cut, and will directly translate to reductions in service, increased fares, or both.

RTAs play a crucial role in keeping the state’s economy operational and growing. One in seven households in Massachusetts, and a much higher percentage of RTA riders, do not own a car. The burden of service cuts or fare increases thus falls squarely on the shoulders of our most economically disadvantaged neighbors – disproportionately seniors, teens, and people of color – and puts their economic future in jeopardy. Without a reliable option for commuting, some employees in Lawrence, Springfield, Holyoke, Worcester and other communities will find themselves unable to arrive at their jobs on time – if at all. Childcare pick up will be delayed. Medical appointments will be missed.

Reducing RTA bus service has major impacts beyond ridership. Fewer buses on the road leads to more people in cars, increasing traffic congestion for all, and adding to local air pollution. Fewer buses means fewer trips to retail shops and restaurants in downtowns across Massachusetts. Fewer buses means reduced access to social services, educational opportunities, health care, grocery stores, and recovery services, and family and social support networks – all of which are essential bridges to stronger communities and improved public health.

Like all modes of transportation in the modern age, RTAs need to update and improve their operations, so legislators, transportation officials, riders and local leaders are right to call for greater transparency and accountability. The 2013 Transportation Finance Act pushed forward a positive first step, requiring all 15 RTAs to conduct a self-assessment of their performance and provide plans for operating more efficiently. Some RTAs are already developing innovative solutions to securing additional funding, while newer technologies and better data collection can lead to more effective routing.

But state funding remains a key contribution to RTA operating budgets, and the RTAs remain a direct route to opportunity for hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts residents outside of Greater Boston, particularly for communities of color and for lower income populations. Given this reality, rather than considering which buses to cut, state budget leaders should be looking at which night and weekend services to boost.

At a minimum, the Governor and House of Representatives should join the Senate in approving $88 million in funding for RTAs next year. This funding level will allow the RTAs to maintain their existing level of service while they look for novel solutions and plan more efficient service. As part of a $41 billion-dollar budget, $88 million is a small price to pay for economic mobility across Massachusetts. In return, the RTAs can agree to greater transparency in their operations, and all of us can work together to improve bus transit in the Commonwealth.

Last month, Representative William Straus, House Chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation, called RTAs the “little laboratories” of regional transit services. If the state provides them with the appropriate level of funding and helps them reimagine how they serve riders and communities, RTAs can certainly provide a model for other transit agencies to follow. First, we need to ensure they will still be on the road when the yellow school buses return in the fall.

Dan Rivera is the Mayor of Lawrence, a community served by the Merrimack Regional Transit Authority as well as by MBTA Commuter Rail. Carlene Pavlos is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association.

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