Event Recap: WTS-Boston March Virtual Luncheon Seminar
Written By: Laura Canham, McFarland Johnson
On March 25, 2021, Marie Sullivan introduced Meredith Slesinger, MassDOT Deputy Administrator, Rail and Transit Division and moderator for Female Leaders of Massachusetts’ Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs) panel discussion.
Meredith presented an overview on the RTA’s. There are 15 RTAs in Massachusetts (MA) and in fiscal year 2020, over 23 million passengers used RTAs. The panel consisted of Angie Gompert, Administrator of Martha’s Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA); Felicia Webb, Administrator of Cape Ann Transportation Authority (CATA); and Sandra Sheehan, Administrator of Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA).
Each panelist gave a quick summary of their RTA. Angie noted that the VTA is comprised of six towns on Martha’s Vineyard. VTA has unique challenges with the seasonality of providing service to 18,000 year-round residents, compared to 100,000 people on the island during the summer season. Felicia identified that CATA, in the winter months, is mostly used by students and seniors, but CATA expanded service for medical transport during COVID-19. Sandra runs the largest RTA in MA. The PVTA runs through the knowledge corridor and serves a population area of 600,000 people. Most of its riders are minority/low income.
What are impacts of COVID, lessons learned, and positives coming out of COVID?
VTA maintained an off-season schedule through the lock-down. As the weather got better, there was a slow transition to more service for a modified in-season schedule. Its buses had already been equipped with electrostatic cleaning sprays and fresh air intake, so there was no equipment retrofitting required. Angie noted that VTA carried less than 1/3 of standard passengers in July and August (peak season).
CATA restructured service to provide more consistent service. Felicia noted that CATA would like to expand most used service of downtown Gloucester and Rockport; CATA’s most popular route.
Since PVTA riders depend on its service to get to work and the grocery store, service reduction was limited. Service times were limited to grocery store opening hours. Due to remote education, service for college and universities was temporarily eliminated. PVTA saw 50-60% of pre-pandemic ridership, which showed just how important the service was to the local capacity. Sandra noted one of the positive outcomes was creating a local partnership to provide meals to senior citizens.
RTAs throughout MA worked and continue to work together so that everyone could get protective equipment. Multiple times there was an appreciation voiced for all front-line workers and bus drivers.
What non-COVID challenges have you faced; what do you consider the biggest challenges?
The key challenges identified were funding, labor (finding bus drivers and mechanics), and the role of public transit with a fixed schedule compared to on-demand services (including competition from Transportation Network Companies, such as Uber and Lyft). Additional post-COVID challenges were identified as: lines at bus stop, capacities on buses and how that impacts waiting times and usage, and the perception of what it means to use the bus service.
Do you see generational differences in the workforce?
It is hard to find bus drivers and mechanics. This is compounded for Angie on Martha’s Vineyard during the peak summer season labor, that is commonly supported by seasonal visas, which have been reduced in recent years. VTA has had some success recruiting seasonal employees from Puerto Rico.
Microtransit services, do you feel like this is a way to compete for riders?
Felicia, Sandra, and Angie all mentioned that their RTAs started microtransit on routes that were not productive enough for scheduled service. Microtransit is a complement to the service provided and will be expanded, if successful.
The benefits of transit use are much greater than just getting a ride. Education and Getting the word out that transit is safe and getting ridership back are important for air quality benefits now and for the future generations is important.
Do you have any questions for each other?
Panelists talk to each other on a regular basis and share ideas. This collaboration has increased through COVID-19 and idea sharing has led to fare-free Tuesday for seniors for some RTAs.
What is the sustainable funding source to cover that subsidy?
PVTA is doing a fare analysis and fare equity analysis. Fares are 17% of PVTA revenues. Ridership went up a lot during COVID, when fares were not collected. One consideration is low-income fares. Ultimately, programs and infrastructure changes all come down to funding.
It is Women’s History Month. How has being a woman in transit affected you?
There are only four RTA administrators in MA that are women. Felicia and Meredith both recalled situations in which they were the only women in the room, but it is not something that is noticed a lot. One of the key benefits that Meredith identified is the fresh perspective women provide, especially coming in new and having the opportunity to ask questions. Having the benefit of female mentors has been important. Once you get the transit bug, it becomes a passion. All panelists agreed that the key thing is that decisions are made based on what is best for the organization and its employees.
RTAs throughout the state face similar challenges: comfort level of ridership, lack of funding, lack of available work force, and lower ridership. As funding and labor allows, there are plans in place for microtransit expansion, electrifying the fleet, installing new technology for electronic payment processing, etc.
The future of transportation is now, and we need to make sure we are proactive. Thank you to Angie, Felicia, Sandra, and Meredith for speaking with WTS-Boston and sharing your experience and expertise of RTAs.