Regional and state stakeholders look toward the future of transit.
By Brian Zayatz
The Pioneer Valley Transit Authority announced in November that from November 25th through December 31st all bus and paratransit lines would not require payment or a pass. The program, dubbed “Try Transit,” is funded by the state Department of Transportation.
The PVTA is the state’s largest transit authority, with 189 busses, 150 vans, and 24 participating communities. Accordingly, it was also awarded the largest sum of state grant money, totaling nearly $750,000, which was determined based on 2019 fare data. All fifteen regional transit authorities in the state collaborated on a joint application for the grant, which funds similar programs statewide.
“The program is designed to encourage new customers to ‘Try Transit,’” according to the PVTA’s press release, “by no cost trips to shop or dine at local businesses, visit with friends and family, and commute to work during the holiday season.”
Try Transit is the latest in free transit experiments in western Massachusetts, following the Franklin Regional Transit Authorities suspension of fares on all fixed routes through June 30th, 2023 earlier this year. Other regional transit authorities around Massachusetts have experimented with fare-free transit throughout the year, devoting federal pandemic-relief funds to the effort. Try Transit is the first statewide effort to this effect, and incoming governor Maura Healey said through a spokeswoman that she would “review the results” of the program upon taking office. Unlike outgoing Governor Charlie Baker, who largely deprioritized transit spending through his tenure, Healey has promised to take advantage of the “unprecedented” amounts of funding available for transit improvements under the Biden Administration.
Try Transit also comes at a time when a national conversation around free transit has picked up in the wake of Washington, D.C.’s becoming the first major city to fund an entirely free bus transit system. Though proponents of public transit point to numerous benefits, such as reduced carbon emissions and relieved traffic congestion, there is still disagreement about how best to use limited funds while political will for transformational levels of funding still comes up short. Some critics have argued that money spent eliminating fares would better serve riders by being used to expand service and routes, instead.
“Free transit has been quite helpful,” says Amherst resident Ashley Ginzburg. “Costs are already quite low, though, so expansion of lines and times would be my biggest want.”
HOPE-ing for transit
While Try Transit may be only a temporary reprieve for regular riders or enticement for first time riders, the program will also produce valuable data that will be used in the development of the PVTA’s twenty-year plan, a process that was kicked off in 2021. In 2020, the Federal Transit Administration chose to fund the planning process, titled the Pioneer Valley Transit Review and Improvement Planning Study (PV-TRIPS), at the level of $680,000 as part of the Helping Obtain Prosperity for Everyone grant program, which funded studies and transit improvements in 25 communities experiencing “persistent poverty” around the country.
Ollie Murphy, a regional planning graduate student at the University of Massachusetts and participant in Valley On Board, a team of students working on PV-TRIPS, said Try Transit had “fortuitous timing.” “Fare-free busses are something a lot of people are really interested in,” Murphy said in an interview with The Shoestring, citing initial results from outreach efforts, including an ongoing survey open to PVTA riders and non-riders alike.
According to Murphy, the block grant funding from the state for Try Transit would likely only have been able to fund one expanded route for a year or two. “For the amount of money that it is, I think this was a good use,” they said, adding that they hope it will have the “widest impact on the public conception of what transit is.”
“Maybe in a couple of months we’ll realize that this program didn’t work, and in that case it’s still a good use of money to discover this,” Murphy continued. “The more we can understand about people’s transit habits, the more we can do to move people away from single passenger vehicles.”
Brian Zayatz is a co-editor of The Shoestring. Klara Ingersoll, a member of the Valley on Board Project Team, was consulted in the production of this article.
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