Regional Transit Authorities Win Funding Victory in House Budget

The Gateway Cities Journal

Regional Transit Authorities Win Funding Victory in House Budget

Public transportation service for over half the state’s population — the half not served by the MBTA — won a precedent-setting victory last week during the House budget debate.

As Jim Kolesar from Berkshire Interfaith Organizing says, “Full funding for the RTAs, including our Berkshire Regional Transit Authority, seems the minimum that we should be doing as a Commonwealth. Berkshire residents need a stronger regional transportation system, not a weaker one.”

For years, there has been a push and pull over the future of the 15 Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs) in Massachusetts. These agencies provide bus service to 267 of the state’s 351 municipalities, including two-thirds of the Gateway Cities. However, as a group, their budgets — and the trips they provide — are dwarfed by the MBTA, which is one of the largest transit agencies in the country.

On the surface, the House budget merely level-funded the RTAs at $94 million. But last year, that support came bundled as $90.5 million in base funding with the remaining $3.5 million set aside for competitive performance-based grants, designed by MassDOT to incentivize the RTAs to become more effective and self-sufficient. At least, that was the theory.

However, MassDOT still has not spent last year’s $3.5 million in performance grants, leading the RTAs and transit advocates to argue that the full amount should be incorporated into the base funding this year.

Thanks to Rep. Sarah Peake’s successful amendments during the House budget debate last week, that’s exactly what happened. The performance grants were eliminated and — if the Senate’s budget concurs — the full line item will be distributed as part of the base funding. This would represent the third consecutive year of multi-million dollar increases to the RTA line-item after at least seven years of level funding.

From Increasing Regional Transit across the Commonwealth, March 2021.

The House budget suggests that the Legislature is now uniting behind the fundamental role of RTAs in providing mobility for essential workers and low-income residents throughout the state. It appears that, despite low ridership over the last year, the pandemic has only reinforced the perceived value of the RTAs and challenged MassDOT’s roadmap for their success.

In particular, high profile zero-fare bus pilot programs in Lawrence and Worcester have turned MassDOT’s rationale on its head: why not maximize riders rather than fares? It would be difficult to identify a better way to entice more people to use regional bus service.

While that debate is just beginning, competition for housing in Gateway Cities and other communities is through the roof. Inventory is historically low, and even Western Mass faces the prospect of a 25% increase in median sales price in only two years.

If the end of the pandemic means resurgent small cities and the opportunity to create “Gateway Hubs,” Massachusetts will need RTAs to become stronger service providers with more robust and predictable state funding. The House budget is a good first step.

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