FRTA sets forums to discuss service

All forum times meet during regular working hours

Mention bus route changes and people have a tendency to see red.

But this time, the Franklin Regional Transit Authority and Franklin Regional Council of Governments are working to involve the public in a state-initiated planning process to review the kinds of fixed routes people want to see.

At a series of meetings beginning with one next Monday from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Great Falls Discovery Center, the FRTA will be asking people to raise concerns and ideas about service they’d like to see, issues they feel need to be raised toward improving service throughout the region — the largest service territory of any public transit authority in the state.

Unlike last year, when sparks flew over FRTA’s proposed elimination of a route that stops in Montague on its way to Amherst, there are no planned changes now in the works, says FRTA Administrator Tina Cote.

“There are no route changes being planned,” said Cote, who added that the upcoming meetings will look at service gaps in the 20-town service area and explore the kinds of service that most people want to see as well as the kinds of issues they have in using fixed-route bus service.

Following next Monday’s “community conversation” in Turners Falls, a Greenfield session is planned for May 14 from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. at the John S. Olver Transit Center, with a Shelburne Falls session planned for May 19 from 3 to 5:30 p.m. in the Shelburne-Buckland Community Center and an Orange Armory meeting on May 20 from 3 to 5 p.m.

All of the gatherings are part of a “comprehensive service analysis” being drafted for the state Legislature by the Connecticut-based consultants URS for each of the state’s 10 regional transit systems. The complete analysis, along with those being prepared independently by Pioneer Valley Transit Authority and other regional transit systems, is scheduled to be presented to the Legislature in June 2015, and will be a guide to consider public funding decisions, said Maureen Mullaney, the COG’s transportation planning manager.

“Over the last few years, there’s been a significant uptick in demand for public transportation and subsequently pressure on the Legislature to provide more funding,” Mullaney said, so the state has required a comprehensive analysis for each of the RTAs. We’re hoping that people share with us their vision for transportation in the region, which we can then feed back to the consultant.”

When the COG prepared its long-range transportation plan several years ago, as it does every four years, the call for increased public transportation “was the number one comment we received, everywhere we went” Mullaney said, including service on weekends, when no service is available.

She said the increased demand for public transit is driven not only by the economy and the rising cost of gasoline, but also a growing environmental consciousness and concern, especially in this part of the state, about climate change.

“We also have a significant problem with people who don’t have cars but need to get to work, to school, to medical appointments,” Mullaney said. “The FRTA budget is very small comparatively. It can only provide what it can provide.”

Mullaney and Cote agree that efforts are needed in this region — where there are six fixed routes stretching from Greenfield to Orange, Charlemont, Turners Falls and Montague as well as Deerfield, Northampton and Amherst — to increase ridership “across all economic levels.

“Perhaps there’s a stigma to taking a bus out here that you don’t find in urban areas, and we need to tackle that mindset,” Mullaney said. “We hope these would be all the kinds of things that come out of this comprehensive service analysis: not just the routes but the cultural issues, the fleet size. And that kind of thing.”

Before the COG moved its offices into the Olver Transit Center, which also serves as a bus station, Mullaney said she had heard of people’s perception that many FRTA buses were running empty, but she said, “While that may be the case here and there, we moved here and see those buses come in packed. I was really surprised to see how many buses come in, and they are full. There are certainly more people riding buses than the general public may think.”

Still, said Cote, the Legislature has tied increases in funding to increases in ridership.

Cote said there will be updates on the FRTA and COG websites and opportunities for public comment next spring, when a draft plan is assembled comparing existing service to demand and presenting alternatives to improving service.

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