Bus Or Bust: Can the Valley weather climate change despite underfunded public transit?

 


By Charlotte Murtishaw


When I moved to the Valley about three years ago, strangers kept handing me advice and trivia: shop here, shop there; don’t use RentNoho; oh, you won’t survive with that coat, winter here is so cold! (Debatable). And persistently, a rumor: climate change is coming, yes, it’s true, we’re all progressive, we recycle, but as luck would have it, climate change isn’t actually supposed to hit the Valley that hard. I don’t know what it is, meteorology or something? Something about the microsystems of valleys. But really, not here – not us.

One of the same people also insisted that Meryl Streep had a house in Easthampton, which after consideration probably meant the East Hamptons, but I bought into the myth. What a happy accident – to end up in a place where talented New Jersey native Meryl Streep might have a fifth country home and overall, everything might be just fine, even if the rest of the world burned.

Of course, like the winter warnings, it wasn’t true. Contrary to popular urban legend, the Pioneer Valley won’t be magically sheltered from climate crisis, by a trick of either geography or liberalism. In fact, the northeastern United States is warming at a rate faster than anywhere else in the country save for Alaska, and faster than the Earth on average. According to UMass’s Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center (NECASC), projections show that the global average temperature change is supposed to cross the 2C threshold – a vital metric set out at the 2016 Paris Climate Accords – in 2060. The Northeast will meet 2C in 2040.

PAST THE FUTURE

Just shy of 2020, western Massachusetts has already weathered a demonstrably climate-change inflected summer. There was the heightened threat of Lyme disease-carrying ticks, burgeoning under a longer, warmer breeding season; the appearance of West Nile in Deerfield and Hadley, and EEE regionally; dangerously hot days and a spate of sudden, powerful storms. Those heavy rains caused agricultural runoff into local water sources, which in turn produced high E. Coli levels. That bathers felt the heat as a chain of “no swimming” signs staked across the Puffers Pond beach denied locals their most popular watering hole.

Even with tangible symptoms of ecological crisis arising, Ambarish Karmalkar, a postdoctoral fellow specializing in climate modeling at NECASC, thinks there’s still time for a future. “It’s pretty much settled we’re going to go beyond 2 degrees Celsius, and all likelihood, we are looking at changes,” Karmalkar said. Proactive “mitigation is really, really important. We can’t just simply do adaptation. It is going to get more and more expensive. We need to reduce emissions so we can reduce warming.”

But for Massachusetts, where does that fight start? To Karmalkar, the answer is obvious: transportation.

“If we are thinking about mitigation, if we are thinking about reducing emissions, then transportation is going to be a very big factor,” he said. The state has “plans to reduce emissions by certain amounts, by 2020, by 2025, and if they want to make those targets, they will have to do something about transportation. There’s no way around it.”

Currently, the transportation sector is responsible for 43% of emissions in the state of Massachusetts, with a significant majority of those emissions due to personal vehicle use.

A MAN WITH A PLAN, AND OTHER MEN WITH OTHER PLANS

NECASC first jumpstarted mainstream conversations about preparing for climate crisis in 2017, with the release of a report which brought the acceleration of climate change into sharp relief and generated an alarmed interest. Karmalkar did the rounds of local and regional media. State agencies, including the Department of Transportation, asked to share the Center’s data, and started holding sustainability workshops for various stakeholders. The city of Springfield was inspired to design a sustainability plan in conjunction with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC) and UMass.

That being said, the numerous sustainability and green transportation plans that litter local municipal websites have virtually never materialized. Spend enough time with executive plans, especially ones which have had a little time to age, and you’ll notice how hilariously disjuncted the renderings of a Jetsons-esque clean city are from the reality they were supposed to beam into being. Whoever put together the 2017 Springfield plan cranked up the HDR on the photos to produce a bright and glittering future transit system, but two years later, service is scarcer than ever – save the new Loop route running to and from the MGM Casino through downtown, fee-free due to a $200,000-per-year MGM subsidization (an agreement which bears shades of the sometimes-controversial Five College alliance).

Most all of the local planning documents regarding sustainability pay lip service to a robust public transit system, but those plans often wallow as idealistic and wishful thinking at the bottom of a policymaker’s drawer. What’s actually happened to local public transit, and in particular, the bus system, the cornerstone of day-to-day mass transportation in the Valley?

The Pioneer Valley Transit Authority is the second-largest Regional Transit Authority (RTA) in Massachusetts, behind only the MBTA in Boston, which might imply some level of prestige, but if anything, over the past decade PVTA has withered due to underfunding. Governor Charlie Baker froze PVTA’s budget allocation for three years straight—essentially cuts, due to natural inflation and rising costs—before delivering a big blow in 2018 with a budget allocation that was $3.1 million dollars short of expected. PVTA riders organized to try to fight the cuts in the legislature, but to no avail. This year, PVTA received an additional $5 million, but only after what the Hampshire District’s state rep. Lindsay Sabadosa called “a complete uphill battle to maintain the same level of service.”

“There’s not a recognition on the state level that public transportation is a way to combat climate change,” she said. “Because if they were, it’s one of the smallest investments we can make, right?”

A WHOLE LOTTA TALK  

As all the plans imply, outcomes aside, transportation is discussed a lot—and it’s been an especially hot topic this fall. Pat Beaudry, the communications director for the PVPC, was on his way to a state-run Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI) meeting in Boston when he called me to talk transit in mid-September.

“It’s really putting what we think is the most important piece first, which is getting people to forgo the car keys and use transit,” Beaudry said over the phone, on his third leg of travel of the day – having driven to Worchester to use the commuter rail to Boston, then walk to the forum.

TCI’s interaction with the public sector is somewhat indirect; instead, the forums bring together transportation, environmental, and governmental entities to workshop the creation of cap-and-trade style levees on private car owners – a market pressure Beaudry hopes will boost the appeal of other transit options.

That same week, Climate Action Now hosted two nights of Northampton City Council candidate climate forums. In true Valley style, all the candidates pledged allegiance and devotion to a green mission. Barely any addressed private vehicle-based emissions at length. Ward 5 candidate Alex Jarrett, co-founder of the Pedal People cooperative, active bike commuter, bus rider, non-car owner, did express interest in expanding PVTA’s fleet of electric vehicles and in increasing funding for more frequent and convenient bus stops.  Current Ward 5 City Councilor David Murphy issued a statement supporting the expansion of an electric fleet, but did not, in fact, attend the forum.

Ward 1 candidate Michael Quinlan, Jr. even saw potential in solar electric vehicles beyond public transit, drawing inspiration from the Sunshine State:

“I really think it’s important for us to prioritize some specific things, such as having rooftop [solar] canopies that charges up things like police vehicles, similar to what they’re doing in Orlando right now,” said Quinlan. “What they do is charge their police vehicles with this community-owned solar, and that way they’re not spending money on gas.”

(It should be mentioned that the police, a unit of the United States’ domestic military-industrial complex, probably do need to be greened, or better yet, eliminated entirely; the US military’s operations abroad make it the single largest producer of greenhouses gases in the world, more than entire countries.)

That same Friday, September 13th, a cadre of local organizations and agencies such as Cooley Dickinson and the Western Mass Food Bank hosted the Western Mass Transportation Forum at the Northampton Center for the Arts. While the forum was focused on public health and human services priorities, it does seem striking that in the three hours of the forum, emissions and environmental health were barely mentioned.

Even local media is in on it. During the Climate Now media blitz, the Hampshire Daily Gazette jumped at the chance to associate itself with climate issues, running stories on Amherst and Northampton’s respective forward-facing sustainability plans and photos of town officers posing proudly with electric ValleyBikes, bus stops in the background. But the records don’t lie: In the past three years of PVTA coverage, not one Gazette article has so much as mentioned climate considerations, and between the two triumphant sustainability stories, the idea of enhancing public transit is relegated to just a single line item.

WHO RIDES THE BUS? WHO VOTES ON THE BUS? AND WHO PAYS THE PRICE?

In August, the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority elected to suspend the B43 bus stop by the Wal-Mart Garden Center at the Mountain View Mall in Hadley, citing “roadway safety concerns” caused by a parking lot renovation. The line, which services route 9 from downtown Northampton to downtown Amherst via UMass, would continue to have a pick-up/drop-off shelter by the J.C. Penney across Maple Street, reasoned administrators; no need to worry.

Of course, bus riders—including employees and shoppers at the dozen-plus major retailers at Mountain View Mall—saw things a little differently while they were sprinting across four lanes of heavy traffic daily to get to work or pick up a prescription from Wal-Mart’s pharmacy. After less than a week of uproar, the PVTA agreed to resume service to the old stop.

The incident mirrors a pattern of disconnect between PVTA riders and PVTA administration, which must suffer from a short institutional memory: It wasn’t even a full year ago, in October of 2018, that a service cut to the Big Y grocery store on University Drive in Amherst played out in a nearly identical fashion.

The reality of the situation – that those tasked with making decisions about the local bus system are frequently people who do not rely on it and rarely use it – is obvious to riders. “It doesn’t feel good,” said Springfield resident ShaeShae Quest to the Gazette in 2017, after a public forum on proposed service cuts. “There’s a whole room of people who don’t ride the bus.”

The PVTA advisory board, chaired by Northampton mayor David Narkewicz, is composed of representatives from every municipality which pays into the RTA – typically the mayor or a town select board member – as well as one mobility representative and one rider representative. Patrick Burke, the PVTA advisory board rider rep (who also drives), estimates that of the 40-plus member board, “there might be one or two of them that actually use the service. They really have no stake in what a route cut would mean to their lives, or what a fare increase means to their lives.”

Riders are so often cut out of conversations that at the Western Mass Transportation Forum, speakers expressed explicit relief that bus users were there to address the room. It may be a step in the right direction, but it’s a step over an extremely, extremely low bar.

After the transportation forum, Sabadosa renewed a commitment to boosting rider voices, making plans with PVTA administrator Sandra Sheehan to ride the bus in Northampton and hold office hours onboard, as well as looking for other ways to solicit rider input.

“She’s in a really tough position,” said Sabadosa, sympathizing with PVTA’s limited administrative resources. “I told her—if you’re doing a bus change, you need to tell my office and we will actually go to all the bus stops and talk to all the people and make sure things are working. That’s our job. I think there are ways we can improve this.”

SHORT ON BUS MONEY

Often, as Sabadosa noted, conversations about transportation come down to the question of profit over efficacy: “You hear this conversation constantly: well the MBTA needs to be profitable. And they raised the MBTA fare, even though it was proven that MBTA wasn’t collecting half of the fairs to begin with.”

On the western side of what is a statewide transportation struggle, the most curious rhetorical pattern present in PVTA press statements is that the transit authority appears to be actively investing in reducing ridership. The fare hike in 2018 sent ridership tumbling 6.6% (over 160,000 riders), but ultimately, revenue increased, and that satisfied the PVTA’s short-term goals.

“When we did the calculation and the analysis, we took into consideration the possibility of losing some riders due to the increases in fares,” Sheehan said to NEPR at the time, pointing to reduced bus ridership countrywide, as if the post-hike decline in ridership she herself predicted was possibly an organic phenomenon, of independent economic forces – as if an acceptable strategy for a public transit authority is to serve fewer taxpayers at an increased cost.

While many people are reliant on the public bus system for educational, professional, and recreational opportunities, PVTA hikes are hitting the paratransit service the hardest. The paratransit’s already-enhanced fares have risen even as service itself has suffered, with disabled and elderly users logging complaints of waiting over two hours for rides. As with the main bus system, the fare hike was intended to raise revenue, but also to price out users and relieve pressure on the system. In the meantime, the Northampton Senior Center has started to run shuttles to popular destination to ensure seniors can reliably reach the services and medical treatment they need.

However, bumping revenue while reducing ridership is a short-term solution to a long-term problem, with the obvious question of where it all ends. As part of the 2018 budget resolution, the PVTA board also built in not just a one-time fare hike, but a process to potentially raise fares once every three years.

“It’s a downward spiral,” Burke said, emphasizing the way cuts tend to fall disproportionately on immigrants and people of color. “Because the vast majority of the cost of a route is public money, you’re never going to be able to use fares to pay for the cost of the service. But if you keep increasing fares, you have lower ridership. You have low ridership, the feds or the state government or the town says, why should we put in more money, we’re getting less service. Fares go up again – it’s a vicious circle.”

Even when people in power are stirred to sympathy, they still manage to somehow usually miss the point. From a Gazette article last fall on summer reduced night service in Amherst:

As an example of the negative effects, Kusner points to La Veracruzana, a South Pleasant Street restaurant which is open until 9 p.m. daily. Eating one of its fish tacos Tuesday night, Kusner said because its chef rides the Route 31 bus back to a home on East Hadley Road, the restaurant would likely have to close earlier from May through August because of the bus route cuts. “If there are no chefs at La Veracruzana, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy our fish tacos, or whatever else we enjoy there,” Kusner said.

Troubling as it is that the primary argument against cuts affecting service industry workers is that they will impact the hour at which local politicians are able to eat Mexican food, Kushner was effective. Ultimately, the Amherst Town Council elected to appropriate an additional $53k from town funds to keep the late bus service running, at least temporarily—a small price to pay for fish tacos.

PLANES, TRAINS, AND AUTOMOBILES: WHAT ARE OTHER OPTIONS?

While the bus system may be struggling, gains have been made in other areas of transportation. The idea of increasing bike ridership and walking are a pet project of urban planners, and often take prominent billing in green transportation plans, but how realistic is that? There’s a certain dissonance in the idea that most folks reside so far away from jobs and services that the bus isn’t an option, but taxing (and time-consuming) exercise in a wet climate will take off if marketed properly. On the other hand, the Valley Bikeshare program, launched a year ago, has exceeded all ridership expectations—a win for those urban planners.

Plans for connective rail service has marched along at an impressive clip as well. Train travel has long been a priority of State Senator Eric Lesser, who earlier this month celebrated a win aboard the inaugural Amtrak Valley Flyer train connecting Greenfield and Springfield to New York City. Now that it’s in place, he can focus on another of his pet projects: an East-West rail directly linking Boston to western Massachusetts. That being said, the much-touted Valley Flyer line, now in provisional use pending ridership, is not priced to be a daily commuting option, and is largely intended to enable daytrips between the Valley and major cities.

Frustratingly, even for those without cars, the solution is often presented as more cars. In a recent column for the Gazette, State Senator Jo Comerford echoed the putative ability of microtransit options to fill the ever-increasing gap. Responding to a constituent letter, she wrote of her intention to “develop and test ride-share options for recipients of social service agencies by using technology, in partnership with public transit and the nonprofit and private sectors.”

That statement is vague, but the implications of bringing not only more vehicles on the road to supplement public transit as well as bringing private business into public works have always been worrying. Even if Comerford wasn’t referring to established rideshare startups, it’s been a consistent theme in discussions around transit nationwide and locally: At the Western Mass Transportation Forum, a speaker from the Franklin County Regional Council of Governments explicitly floated a desire to boost Lyft and Uber presence in the area. (Uber, for the record, despite underpaying its contractors (not employees), has never ever turned a profit, instead preferring the Amazon model of living off piles of investor seed capital while slowing choking the rest of the market—public and private—out of viability.)

While the clean energy industry has boomed considerably over the past decade, it’s unlikely to provide the low-emissions, low-budget silver bullet that people want. “My personal thing is, I think we need to reduce consumption, which is not a popular opinion in many ways,” Karmalkar said. “People tend to think oh, there’s going to be some renewable energy alternatives that will somehow help us live the way we live now. I don’t think that’s possible.”

Clean energy, crippled by new tariffs and discontinued tax incentives under the Trump administration, feels in some way like a psychological outgrowth of the times. The post-industrial era has been haunted by the phantasm of technology, most obviously and odiously as embodied by Silicon Valley: the idea that a gadget can be engineered to solve a problem when the most straightforward solution isn’t rooted in tech at all, but in societal changes.

Beaudry, for his part, is confident that private drivership will remain high but sees no problem so long as the TCI initiatives bring in more money. “Anything talking about taking America’s cars away is dead in the water,” he said, but emphasized that reducing state-subsidization of fuel will reassign the financial burden to drivers and cause more thoughtful private vehicle use. (As always, though, the value of a dollar is not evenly distributed; these costs will land hardest on those with the least to spare. For a real-life corollary, just look at how quickly the Yellow Vest protests in France mobilized in response to a gas tax that was environmentally-minded, but tone-deaf to class concerns.)

At the nexus of these two perspectives is the hopeful suggestion of the rise of electric vehicles, an option both far too expensive for most consumers to consider, and dependent on a clean but also finite resource: lithium and other metals critical to manufacturing rechargeable batteries are running lean to an extent that worries even Tesla. And to be sure ceasing daily driving is extremely difficult and frequently out of the question; while I’ve been carless before, in my three years here, I’ve had three different sources of income which depended on access to a reliable vehicle, including my longest-term and highest-paying job. And when late-night routes gets cut, as the Amherst Town Council recognized, it’s usually low-wage service workers who have to figure out how to get home.

Unfortunately, even at the national level liberal candidates are struggling to get on board with a future of less, instead trying to pander to voters who they are convinced want more, or at least that everything will stay the same – even if “the same” continues down a path which sacrifices the whole planet. At the seven-hour Democratic presidential candidates climate forum, with the Amazon still smoldering from greedy cattle ranchers’ land grabs, the supposed bright hopes for the nation made relatable jokes about their love of hamburgers, and promised to keep burning the midnight oil on American car culture with a weird, faux-masculine posturing.

“There will still be some legacy gas guzzlers on the road for quite some time,” Andrew Yang said to comfort Wolf Blitzer, who was pantomiming horror at the idea of – not even public transit – but that everyone might have to drive electric cars. (It follows that Wolf Blitzer doesn’t have to think too hard about paying for gas if that’s his nightmare.) They were playing, of course, to a largely imagined blue-collar white midwestern demographic, anxious to course-correct from the purported failures of the last election—but potentially unaware that this sort of mindset eases the anxieties of certain vocally conscientious but comfortable coast-dwelling liberals, too.

Looking at the national emissions fight from the other side of the aisle, the Trump administration has prioritized rolling back auto industry environmental regulations, going as far as to wage war on California’s state regulations. With emissions standards thrown into uncertainty and no promise auto manufacturers will self-impose regulations, municipalities have virtually no control over the emissions generated by private vehicle ownership – only their own transportation systems. In the end, the question of mass transportation in the Valley continues to come back to the public bus system, the only existing infrastructure in the area capable of supporting a diverse array of constituents and transportation needs in a low-footprint manner. Provided, that is, adequate funding.

PUBLIC SERVICE VS. PUBLIC GOOD

Is a focus on money fair when it comes to public transit?

“Quite frankly, the argument that public transportation is a public good and public transit should be free resonates strongly with me,” Sabadosa said.

Hannah Archambault, an Economics PhD student who relies on PVTA to commute between Northampton and UMass, is able to ride the bus for free during the standard academic year, but over the summers and other holiday breaks has to pony up the change for her ride. (Fares, Burke estimates, make up a maximum of  “8% to 15%” of the cost of a PVTA route.)

“It’s particularly fucked up to give it sometimes, then take it away when people plan their budgets around it, you know?” Archambault said, pointing out that facilities and other campus staff are also expected to adhere to their regular work requirements despite reduced transportation access.

Even for non-Five College riders, the same could be said for schedules, or fares, or routes — PVTA giveth, yeah, but mostly, PVTA taketh away, even as riders’ life obligations remain constant.

“The fight we were having this year was over $5 million dollars,” Sabadosa stressed. It’s not exactly chump change, but in terms of state budgets, it’s not a whole lot. Sabadosa and Beaudry both point to “the culture of taking the bus” in Western Mass, which sees a higher proportion of lower-income and majority people of color among its transit-dependent ridership than the MBTA, without as many white-collar urban commuters. This stigma may help structure consumer decisions, sure, but it also could be implied that there’s a loose impact on how it affects the priorities of local governing bodies. It would also help explain why rail and e-bike projects have been loudly touted as green infrastructure while the bus system suffers at the margins.

As long as riders’ voices take the backseat within transit’s governing authorities, Burke sees self-organizing as the only way for bus users to exert pressure on the system to meet their needs.

“It’s an environmental issue, it’s a climate justice issue, it’s an economic justice issue, it’s a labor rights issue, it’s a disability and ability rights issue – you can’t frame it in one way because it’s a system and the way people interact with it, it affects people in so many ways,” said Burke. “So to me, it’s about bringing together people across different issues and saying, how do we actually fight for public transit as a public good act, to fight climate change and to make our society more equal?”

The insulting aspect of the battle to save public transit is that as a public good, ideally it wouldn’t be a fight at all. Governor Charlie Baker’s continuous disinvestment in public transportation affects all Massachusetts residents by dialing back a key component of emissions reduction at the same time as the climate continues to heat to critical and irreversible levels.

“We need individuals to realize how big of a problem this is, and how much our behavior needs to change,” said Karmalkar, but really, “we need systemic change.”

The eye-grabbing 2017 NECASC report was clear about where we need to focus efforts to cut local emissions and mitigate climate change, so the question stands: Why have government entities at the local, regional, and state level consistently failed to recognize or prioritize that? And at the end of the world, why not even try?


Charlotte Murtishaw is a regular contributor to The Shoestring.  Additional reporting by Morgan O’Connor and Will Meyer