While Massachusetts has 15 regional transit authorities providing local bus service in communities throughout the Commonwealth, none of them can afford to provide late-night service and many do not run on Sundays or even on weekends.
And that can present problems for some riders.
“I just wish (the schedule) was later. Trying to get stuff done in one day can be tough,” said Tammy Castro, a resident of Attleboro. “And sometimes the buses run early and the next one runs late, so you can get stuck somewhere for an hour.”
Currently, RTAs have two main types of service: fixed-route bus runs with regular schedules, set routes and times; and “demand response” providing on-demand service or para-transit for seniors and people with disabilities. Some provide services like commuter rail shuttles.
Francis Gay, the administrator from Greater Attleboro-Taunton Regional Transit Authority, said GATRA has received a lot of requests for Sunday service from different areas it serves. Currently, only one GATRA route runs on Sundays between Wheaton College in Norton and the Mansfield MBTA commuter rail station, and it doesn’t operate during winter and summer break.
“We are trying to find additional funding to start service on Sundays. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to get additional funding from the state,” Gay said.
Southeastern Regional Transit Authority, which serves New Bedford, Fall River and nearby communities, doesn’t run on Sundays. The same holds true for the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority and Cape Ann Transit Authority. The Franklin Regional Transit Authority, which serves Franklin County, North Quabbin and nearby areas, doesn’t provide service on weekends.
The inconvenience stems from the infrequency or limited schedule of routes, Matt Casale from MASSPIRG said about the hourly basis and daytime-only schedule in some regions, noting it could make difficult for students to rely on the bus. He also mentioned limited service between RTA service areas, which can bring challenges to people who travel between regions.
In other cases, RTA service isn’t synced up with MBTA commuter rail service, meaning commuters have to drive to the train station instead of being able to rely on the bus.
“When people get off the commuter rail, they want to be able to hop on an RTA bus to get home. Or when they get off an RTA bus, they want to be able to get a bike share to get home.” Casale said.
The unpredictability and inconsistency of RTA funding, which is proposed by the governor then sent to the Legislature every year, can become problematic.
There is no guarantee that the RTAs will receive the same or greater base level of funding from the state year to year, Casale explained. These problems made it difficult for regional transit authorities to complete their annual budgets, plan routes and determine service levels at the beginning of the year.
“When they (RTAs) don’t know what their budget is going to look like, that makes it harder for them to operate,” Casale said. He also said it causes problems to the riders as they need to know that their transportation options aren’t going to change drastically when they make important, long-term life decisions such as moving, accepting new jobs or going to certain schools.
“Losing a bus route, or even just losing frequency on a bus route, can mean an inability to get to work or school. It can mean a severing of community connections,” Casale said.
The Task Force on Regional Transit Authority Performance and Funding, which was created last fall and included state legislators, RTA administrators and rider advocates, released a report in April with 24 recommendations to the 15 state RTAs for providing and improving transit services that meet identified community needs, maximize ridership and at the same time ensure they were receiving adequate funding.
Most recommendations focused on improving accountability and quality of service, providing reliable paratransit and also developing pilot programs that include innovative transit delivery models.
Reps. Steven Howitt, R-Seekonk, and Norman Orrall, R-Lakeville, members of the Legislature’s Committee on Transportation, said RTAs need to review their ridership and improve efficiency, instead of increasing fixed-route bus frequency “without any passengers on the bus.”
Howitt also mentioned other services could be promoted, such as “on-demand” service for the elderly and people with disabilities. If Uber and Lyft are for young people who are more engaged with new technology, the on-demand service, which can be made by phone calls, that may become a possibility to increase ridership.
RTAs are funded through a combination of state and federal funding, local assessments, fares, and other revenue, such as advertising. The Transportation Finance Act in 2013 proposed annual funding increases of 2.5 percent from the state.
Each RTA’s budget breaks down differently, but on average, they receive 39 percent of their operating funding from the state, 24 percent from federal grants, 20 percent from local funds, 13 percent from fare revenues, and 4 percent from other sources, according to the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts.
The RTAs received a 2.5 percent increase in state funding between fiscal years 2015 and 2016, but in fiscal year 2017 state funding remained level at $82 million. Then, in fiscal year 2018, state funding was reduced to $80.4 million.
In FY 2020, the Baker administration proposed a $90.5 million funding, including $3.5 million from MassDOT on a discretionary basis.