Are State’s 15 Regional Transit Authorities Ready for Prime Time?

A Merrimack Valley Transit—or MeVa—bus. (WHAV News file photograph.)

THE SENATE’S BUDGET proposal for the coming fiscal year calls for directing $214 million to the state’s 15 regional transit authorities, including $40 million so they can eliminate fares on all of their bus routes and $10 million to promote routes connecting regions.

It’s a bold plan, one that has been hailed as a big step forward for transit agencies that have historically lived in the shadow of the much larger MBTA. Senate leaders say the money is also a step toward greater equity in transportation.

A new report portrays the RTAs as largely inward-looking organizations that lack connection with each other and are subject to muddled oversight from the state Department of Transportation. The result is a somewhat disjointed overall transit system that sometimes struggles to get people where they need to go and is over-reliant on funding from the communities being served.

The report was commissioned by the town of Ware and the Quaboag Connector, a rural micro-transit service backed by the Quaboag Valley Community Development Corporation. It was paid for with grant funds from the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts. The analysis contained in the report was developed by the Center for Policy Analysis at Tufts University.

The report raises concerns about inadequate funding and oversight of the RTAs, placing a good chunk of the blame on the Department of Transportation, which parcels out the money.

“The current approach to regional transit funding is not built on a clear set of publicly shared principles,” the report says. “Funding levels in any given year seem to reflect funding levels the year before—which were themselves correlated with funding levels the year before that. Absent an explicit formula for RTAs, the de facto effect of this funding-by-inertia approach is that funding levels mostly reflect ridership, with no obvious adjustments for need, capacity, or otherwise.”

RTA funding comes from three sources – the federal government, state government, and local member communities. The report spotlights how 20 percent of the funding currently comes from local communities, a far higher percentage than the 8 percent provided by MBTA member communities.

“In some ways, this comparison understates the gap,” the report says. “If federal dollars are set aside, and the funding controlled by Massachusetts policy is examined separately—namely state aid and local support—then the discrepancy is even sharper: 32 percent of non-federal funding in the RTA system is supplied by local communities, as compared to 12 percent in the MBTA.”

The report also found that the “funding-by-inertia” approach fails to adequately address income disparities between the RTAs. Lower-income regions receive some extra aid, the report says, but overall “the effect is somewhat arbitrary and highly variable, favoring select low-income regions over others (the Southeastern RTA is relatively underfunded, given its income level, while the Pioneer Valley RTA is generously funded).”

Evan Horowitz, the executive director of the Center for State Policy Analysis, said he had difficulty obtaining guiding principles on funding decisions from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, even after filing public records requests for documents.

Service levels vary widely among the RTAs. Most offer bus service within their territories, but some only offer paratransit service or rides for seniors. Some towns within the RTA service areas don’t participate at all.

The Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority is at the forefront of RTAs experimenting with new approaches and services. Noah Berger, executive director, said the authority went fully fare free in March 2022. He said ridership is 60 percent above pre-pandemic levels.

If the Senate funding approach for RTAs prevails in budget negotiations on Beacon Hill, Berger said, he expects to receive a portion of the state money to cover his agency’s loss of revenue from eliminating fares, which would free up funding for other initiatives. Already the RTA runs a bus route between Lawrence, which is in the transit authority’s service area, to Lowell, which is not. The RTA also offers paratransit service to a Veterans Administration facility in Bedford.

“The fare free money is golden,” he said.

This article first appeared on CommonWealth Beacon and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.


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