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EDITORIAL: MART’s Weak Case for Service Cuts

September 28, 2018

It’s troubling that the Montachusett Area Regional Transit Authority (MART) is considering cutting bus and shuttle services to local communities, especially on several rural routes where ridership is growing.

On Tuesday, members of MART’s Advisory Board met to discuss possible options for closing a potential $500,000 deficit in its 2019-20 budget that was set in June.

Deputy Administrator Bruno Fisher said the shortfall is the result of reductions in state and federal funding to MART.

However, that flies in the face of a $2 million annual increase in funding for regional transportation agencies that was approved by the state Legislature in July and signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker. All 15 regional-transit systems shared in a total $82 million for fiscal 2019, up from $80 million a year ago.

In addition, lawmakers agreed to distribute an extra $4 million to local agencies that can provide positive, data-driven results for improving service and expanding routes to areas in need. Stefanie Pollock, the secretary and CEO of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, is setting up a task force to determine agency recipients and funding amounts.

So it comes as a surprise to us that MART is now showing a potential $500,000 deficit after its board accepted and approved its annual budget in June.

Did directors discuss these so-called funding cuts then? If so, why weren’t cuts implemented then, instead of three months into the new fiscal year?

It doesn’t add up.

What also doesn’t add up is why MART would consider cutting shuttle services to Athol and Orange to save money.

According to Athol Town Manager Shaun Suhoski, Athol’s shuttle service had been one of MART’s only fixed routes that saw ridership increases over the past two years, going from 18,000 to 22,000 customers. That’s a 22 percent increase, definitely a feather in MART’s cap.

“I understand it’s a function of dollars, but that area of the commonwealth is chronically under-served. Some people don’t even have cars,” said Suhoski.

We agree these residents need access to MART’s services to go to work, shop, and medical appointments. They would suffer greatly with any route reductions.

The same can be said for residents served in Leominster, Fitchburg and elsewhere. Any service reduction, no matter how small, is going to affect someone.

We understand MART does not have an unlimited budget to fund unlimited routes. No transit agency does. But shrewd fiscal management is as important to the overall operation as is the efficiency of routes. MART should focus on doing more with less.

It should also look inward, to see if any fiscal reductions can be made in-house to offset the so-called funding reductions. In our preliminary research, MART’s payroll has grown from 81 employees in 2014 to 100 employees in 2017 -- a 23 percent increase.

Finally, MART should also conduct an analysis on the impact of small, incremental fare increases as a last resort.

The main thing is for MART directors to act prudently -- not hastily -- and assess all the options before it begins trimming vital services to local communities.

In our view, there isn’t enough justification for MART to do anything except dig deeper into operations for a better plan.

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