In an effort to improve traffic flow along Route 9, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) has begun a study to determine if changes to the B43 bus line, which a number of people in the Five-College community rely on for transportation, could potentially make travel easier and faster along Route 9.
The B43 is run by the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA). Its route connects Amherst College, UMass, Hampshire Mall and Smith College. One of the changes MassDOT has proposed is having the bus run express from UMass to Northampton with no stops in Amherst.
The bus stop at UMass is about 1.3 miles away from Converse Hall. In order to get to the express bus, students, faculty and staff would need to take either the R29, 31 or 38 from Amherst, according to Kevin Kennedy, communications director for the Five College Consortium.
One benefit of the express bus, however, is that it would run more frequently, four times per hour rather than three.
While running more buses per hour could benefit some students, the proposal of an express bus worries others. The B43 is the only bus that connects Amherst College to Hampshire Mall, where many students shop for groceries and other essentials. It’s also the only direct bus route between Amherst and Smith.
These changes concern some students who rely on the bus to take classes or participate in clubs at other colleges in the area. Cristina Rey ’19E lives off-campus in Hadley and rides the B43 bus every day. Rey takes the bus from the intersection of Middle and Russell Streets in Hadley and typically gets off at the stop in front of Converse Hall or at Hampshire Mall.
“I don’t have another way to get around,” Rey said. “I would use the bus if they changed it to an express route, unless they cut my stops. If they [cut my stops] I will have no way to get to class, to see my friends, to go to events, anything. I’ll literally be stuck in the middle of Hadley.”
After a decrease in state funding last year, PVTA has a budget deficit of $1.4 million. In order to reduce this debt, PVTA is looking at ways to lower the costs of various routes.
“While we are constantly tweaking our routes to maximize performance, a major driver on system-wide changes is funding,” PVTA Director of Operations and Planning Krystal Oldread said. “When funding levels decrease we unfortunately have to decrease service as well, such as the case last summer.”
Last summer PVTA announced the cuts of four bus lines in an effort to relieve some of its debt. A trolley route that ran in South Hadley and the M40 express route that ran from UMass to Northampton were both eliminated, as were two other routes in the Springfield area. The cuts were met with protests by a number of riders who depended on the various bus routes to get around the area, according to Greenfield Recorder.
In July 2017, several bus routes were eliminated while service was reduced on others, according to an article from Mass Live.
The B43 line is one of PVTA’s most expensive bus routes. In the 2016 fiscal year, it cost over $2.1 million to operate but only collected about $186,000 in fares, according to records available on the PVTA website.
According to Kennedy, the Five Colleges compensate towns in the area for the cost of running the B43 bus line during the academic year and the 38 and 39 routes year-round.
All three of these lines are considered “Five-College routes.” At the end of the fiscal year in 2017, the Five Colleges had paid $497,368, according to Kennedy.
Since the budget deficit began this summer, representatives from the Five Colleges have met with the administrator of the PVTA four times in an effort to determine how the they can better cover the costs of the routes.
“PVTA recently provided us documentation for the first time showing that it recently has been charging the towns several hundred thousand dollars less than what it costs PVTA to run the Five-College bus routes,” Kennedy said in an email. “We are exploring with Five-College administrators and PVTA various strategies for increasing Five-College contributions for the Five-College bus routes to ensure [the] Five Colleges pays appropriately.”
The PVTA advisory board is meeting on Jan. 24 to vote on which route changes to bring to public hearing. Throughout February and March, public hearings will be held on service changes, after which PVTA will decide on the changes to present to the advisory board for a final vote on April 11, according to Oldread. Until then, none of the changes proposed by MassDOT will take effect, and it is ultimately up to the public and PVTA to determine which routes stay, said Oldread.
Kennedy added that the Five Colleges will make sure that student and staff voices are heard throughout this process.
“If PVTA does propose making changes to the B43 or any of the other Five-College routes, we will work with the campuses administrators to encourage student and employee riders to share their opinions with PVTA,” Kennedy said.