Jan. 29—MeVa and transportation advocates are backing a state bill to help fund bus drivers' pay and the days and times of service for regional transit authorities at the $150 million they received for fiscal 2024 ending June 30.
Each year, the base amount would be adjusted for inflation and subject to a cap.
To become law and take effect in fiscal '25, starting July 1, it needs to be recommended by the Joint Transportation Committee, approved by the Massachusetts House of Representatives and Senate and signed by Gov. Maura Healey.
Last year the bill was recommended by committee but did not advance further.
Bill advocates including help organizations, bus drivers and passengers testified Wednesday at a State House public hearing before the transportation committee on behalf of the RTA Advancement Bill (Sen. 2277/House 3272).
They said it would help elderly, low income and people in underserved areas get jobs, food pantries, grocery stores and medical appointments.
The state's 15 regional transit authority's serve over 250 towns and cities in Massachusetts.
The bill has implications for MeVa (Merrimack Valley Transit) bus riders who recently saw service extended at night and added on Sundays from the $150 million in funding allocated by the state Legislature and Gov. Maura Healey.
The advancement bill would also bode well for the continuance of the pilot, free-fare program in the Valley, set to expire in December, says Noah Berger, administrator for MeVa, which serves 16 communities from Lawrence to Salisbury.
He said MeVa and the other regional transits have been underfunded, historically, and need the predictable funding the RTA Advancement Bill provides to serve riders with the needed bus routes, frequency and drivers.
Berger watched the hearing online through a State House link.
At the hearing was Pete Wilson, policy director of the Transportation Massachusetts nonprofit, which advocates for equitable public transportation on behalf of riders in central and western Massachusetts as well as urbanites without vehicles.
Wilson says 15 people spoke including a Brockton bus driver.
The driver said he has witnessed people in need turn their lives around through the pilot free-fare program in Brockton.
He told of a woman who was homeless and using the bus to get to a warm place, the local library, and, ultimately, find a job, is using the bus to get to and from work.
Free fares greatly reduce tension and potential for conflict between riders and drivers, the driver said.
Ultimately, the advancement bill would provide stable funding to a service in need of it, Wilson says.
RTAs rely on federal grant funding and state contract assistance.
Allocations have been volatile over the last 10 years, Wilson says.
"If you don't know what you are getting in state contract assistance year to year it is much harder to plan daily operations," Wilson says.
A provision of the RTA Advancement Bill would establish a fund for investments in regional transit, drawing on fees from network riding businesses like Uber and Lyft.
This source would be akin to the dedicated revenue source the MBTA receives each year from a percentage of the state sales tax.
The bill would also eliminate the farebox recovery ratio as a performance metric for transit agencies.
Berger says this ratio unfairly targets those people most in need of public transit.
"We provide a really valuable service," Berger said.
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