WRTA proposes cutting Southbridge, Webster, Spencer buses

By Laurie Schlatter
Citizen Chronicle Writer

SOUTHBRIDGE — The three major public bus routes serving southern Worcester County are slated for complete elimination, according to a proposal unveiled last week by the Worcester Regional Transit Authority.

All three fixed-community routes provide service into Worcester and back. Route 29, the Southbridge-Charlton bus, began service in 2014. Route 33 handles passengers from Spencer and East Brookfield. Route 42 serves people in Oxford and Webster.

The routes are part of an extensive reduction in services ranging from low to high impact. Meaghan Lyver, manager of marketing and communications for the WRTA, confirmed this week that the three routes are among the cuts being considered systemwide, not just the southern tier, in keeping with $1.2 million in reductions proposed by WRTA Administrator Jonathan E. Church last week to cover a deficit and then some.

She acknowledged that the elimination of the three routes would have a high impact in terms of savings and service. She pointed out that nothing has been finalized yet.

The three routes provide weekday bus service to and from Worcester. Two sets of data for daily weekday passengers are available from the WRTA; while the numbers don’t quite match up, they do give a sense of how many people are riding those buses. The 2014 data are for the entire year. The 2017 data are for July-December only. The following numbers reflect average weekday ridership:

Route 29: 137 in 2014; 211 in 2017.
Route 33: 567 in 2014; 501 in 2017.
Route 42: 268 in 2014; 276 in 2017.

Justin Lawson of Southbridge, has been driving buses with the WRTA for almost five years, is one of nine members on the Funding for the Public Transit Committee. While he drives routes in Worcester, he said, the three southern tier routes in question “are usually consistently full buses.” He also spoke about the impact of the potential loss of bus service:

“Those runs are major and will be a huge blow to our communities. Many users actually continue on to other routes and go to Spectrum (in Worcester) for their methadone. This is what worries me the most. How are rural communities going to access their medicine to stay clean? We will have even more of an opioid health crisis on our hands, with a lack of bus service coming in from the communities surrounding Worcester,” Lawson said in a Facebook message.

Rosemary Scrivens, director of Economic Development in Southbridge, said the case for drug treatment isn’t the strongest argument in favor of keeping the routes because people can receive that help in Southbridge.

More to the point, she said, “Anything that helps someone keep a job is a good thing. Anything that cuts off a means to get to work is a loss. It’s a loss if any of our residents can’t get to work.”

The only options she could see, if the route were cut, would be to find a job in Southbridge or move to Worcester.

The WRTA Advisory Board voted last week to hold public hearings on the proposed cuts. A schedule has not been released yet, Ms. Lyver said, but the hearings will be held in affected towns.

“Our goal is to do whatever we can so we don’t have to cut services,” she said. “We know our riders rely on us and we don’t want to do that. But if we don’t have the money, we can’t run the buses.”

The state’s 15 Regional Transit Authorities receive the bulk of their funding from the state coffers in addition to fares plus assessments paid by participating communities.

To sustain services and seek moderate growth, the RTAs had proposed a five-year plan for budgets and services based on state funding starting at $80 million in fiscal 2015. That was to be followed by a $2 million increase a year for three years, through fiscal 2018. The state did that once, then level funded it the next year, and cut it back to $80.4 million in fiscal 2018, which ends June 30. The WRTA’s share was $11.2 million of its $20 million operating budget.

The result of reduced funding, combined with increased costs, is a $900,000 deficit, which is forcing cuts in preparation for an expected level-funded allocation in fiscal 2019, which begins July 1. The governor’s budget has proposed $80.4 million for the RTAs.

“If the state Legislature provides additional funding for RTAs,” Ms. Lyver said in an email, “then the impact of service cuts will be less or none at all depending upon the amount given.”

Ms. Scrivens said the president’s spending plan for the coming federal fiscal year moves more money away from transit. As someone with a background in public transportation, she said, she believes strongly in public transit because it eases traffic congestion and wear and tear on the roads and provides people with access to jobs. Yet the funding process is very complicated, she said, and it continues to go down year after year.

Ms. Lyver said the quest for funds has involved state Senate President Harriett Chandler, D-Worcester, and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 22. In addition, Local 22 and the Funding for the Public Transit Committee are sponsoring a rally to save the buses and stop the cuts from 5 to 8 p.m. March 20 at Worcester City Hall.

Lawson said the Funding for the Public Transit Committee was started about three weeks ago and he is a frequent contributor on the Facebook group, Massachusetts Regional Transit Funding Initiative: “We knew we had to do something and we couldn’t let the level-funding go through without a fight.”

In the Facebook message, he recalled hearing “a woman talking about losing Webster bus service last week. She is handicapped and has no other transportation besides our bus service. She was basically in tears, talking to someone else about how difficult it will be to see her daughter now in Webster if she loses bus 42. She was talking about taking a cab and she would have to sacrifice food to eat just to see her child.

“I never even thought about the impacts to everyday people till we formed our committee,” Lawson said. “Now I am committed to fighting for our passengers. … On the surface it’s just about buses; however, dig deeper and it’s a choice between life or death.”

The Worcester Regional Transit Authority is eyeing cuts that would eliminate service in the towns of Southbridge, Spencer, and Webster.

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