New MVRTA Chief Maps Plans to Improve Bus Stop Visibility, Rebuild Ridership in Aftermath of COVID-19

Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority Administrator Noah S. Berger plans to ride on every bus route to solicit feedback. (Courtesy photograph.)

A former federal transportation official has become only the third administrator of the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority in the bus service’s 45-year history.

Noah S. Berger, of Newton, Mass., took over last month at the Haverhill-based agency. He succeeds Joseph J. Costanzo, who served for most of the Authority’s history and recently retired. Among his top priorities, he told WHAV, is bringing back riders in the aftermath of COVID-19.

“Our ridership is far below what it had been before COVID. I think there’s a need, not only to get our old riders back onto the service, but identify new riders and get them onto our service,” he said.

His initial reaction is service needs to move from riders flagging down buses to more formal bus stops. While many existing riders are familiar with the system, it may be “intimidating” for others who do not know where to stand or which bus and when it drives by.

“One thing that stands out is that we have tended to fly under the radar screen, so we’re not as visible as maybe we need to be,” he explained.

A solution requires working “shoulder-to-shoulder” with the communities that own the streets to place bus stops and signs. Meeting riders’ needs also likely means more frequent service and longer hours instead of stopping at 6 at night.

Meanwhile Berger is soliciting first-hand feedback from cities and towns, businesses, community groups and riders.

“One of the things I’ve done is I plan to ride all of our routes. I’ve already started that and talked to riders,” he said.

Berger has nearly 30 years of public transportation experience, including 15 years with the Federal Transit Administration, primarily as director of Planning and Program Development. He most recently served as deputy administrator at the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority. In his cover letter expressing interest in the job, he told the Advisory Board, “As Congress debates the president’s proposed American Jobs Plan, with a goal of transportation equity, MVRTA will be in prime position to attract additional funding.”

According to a job listing, the administrator’s job pays about $130,000 annually.

MVRTA an Outgrowth of Work by Merrimack Valley Planning Commission 45 Years Ago

The MVRTA was created by state legislation in 1974 and began operating in 1976. Legislation required the operation of buses to be conducted by the private sector. In the early days, Trombley Motor Coach and Boston Commuter managed the fleet. By 1983, Management Resources Limited was under contract, but was fired when striking bus drivers and mechanics left buses idle. Today, outside managers come from Cincinnati, Ohio-based First Transit, a subsidiary of the United Kingdom-based FirstGroup.

The Authority was largely organized by the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission and its first administrator was James Schultz. Shortly thereafter, Costanzo and William “Bud” Hart, who were both transportation planners for the Commission, moved over to the Transit Authority as administrator and assistant administrator respectively. Hart, who left in 1982, said one of the Authority’s first jobs was to rehabilitate used buses and place them into service.

During Costanzo’s time, the first summer bus service to Salisbury Beach was launched, service to Amesbury started and the agency moved its rented administrative offices in the Franklin Block, 200 Merrimack St., Haverhill, to its own then-bus storage building at 85 Railroad Ave., where it remains today.

In 2012, the nonprofit NorthEast Passenger Transportation Association inducted Costanzo into its Hall of Fame which recognizes those with at least 20 years’ experience in the industry and “who have made an outstanding contribution to the transit industry.

Today, the Authority serves Amesbury, Andover, Boxford, Georgetown, Groveland, Haverhill, Lawrence, Merrimac, Methuen, Newbury, Newburyport, North Andover, North Reading, Rowley, Salisbury, and West Newbury.

Congresswoman Lori Trahan and state Reps. Christina Minicucci and Andy X. Vargas tour the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority.

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