Updated 4:15 pm
The Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) advisory board unanimously voted Tuesday to make drastic cuts to the majority of its routes except the 1, 10, and 13, starting Dec. 1, due to a $1 million budget deficit.
John Alley, West Tisbury’s representative to the board, confirmed the vote to The Times. “We’re in a deficit,” Alley said. “We all agreed we have to make some serious cuts.”
The $1 million deficit comes from $700,000 for the new union contract for VTA bus drivers, a $200,000 unanticipated rise in insurance policy costs for buses, and $100,000 in rent increases for the VTA administration building, according to the VTA website.
“I think we as a board acted in a responsible way to address the thing,” Alley said. “We’re trying to do the best thing we can.”
Route 1 goes from Vineyard Haven to Edgartown along Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road. Route 13 also travels from Vineyard Haven to Edgartown, but goes along Beach Road in Oak Bluffs. The VTA is under contract with the Steamship Authority (SSA) to operate Route 10, which goes from the SSA to the Tisbury Park and Ride.
The full-time bus drivers went on strike on June 28, and saw support from presidential candidates and state legislators. Meanwhile, the VTA operated its routes with seasonal drivers and managers, while eliminating some key services like the Medivan, which brings Islanders to off-Island medical appointments. Bus drivers went on a strike demanding better wages, affordable healthcare, and better workplace treatment. Drivers and their union, Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), reached a contract agreement with the driver’s parent company, Transit Connection Inc. (TCI), ending the strike. Drivers ratified the agreement at the end of July.
VTA administrator Angela Grant told The Times that on Oct. 1, the Medivan service cost will increase from $30 to $40, and will require a minimum of four people to run.
According to Grant, 85 percent of the VTA’s off-season ridership is on routes 1, 10, and 13.
The deficit is 17.5 percent of the VTA’s $5.77 million 2018 operating budget.
The board is cutting routes 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, and 10A, eliminating some of its regular service up-Island. Routes 11, 12, and 8 do not regularly run in the winter season, but there are significant changes to the VTA’s normal winter routes. Grant also said Sunday service will be eliminated on all routes except route 10.
“This is a major change,” Grant said.
While many of the regular routes are gone, Grant said there are plans in the works for service up-Island. In the winter, which goes from December to April 2, Grant said there may be a reservation service for some routes, but as for specifics she didn’t have any.
Aquinnah selectmen chairman Juli Vanderhoop said cutting bus service was not fair to residents, students, and workers up-Island. “That’s not public transportation. That’s not how public transportation should function,” Vanderhoop said. “What are they thinking?”
Drivers planned to meet on Saturday, but their meeting takes on new meaning with the news of impending route cuts. Edgartown’s representative Mark Snider, who was appointed Monday, and Tisbury representative Elaine Miller will attend Saturday’s meeting.
Richard Townes, one of the bus drivers who was at Tuesday’s advisory board meeting, said it was a shame the routes would be cut. “Why did you start a contract if you don’t have funding to fund it?” Townes said.
Grant predicted there would be a need for cuts if the union’s contract demands were met.
Snider said Grant presented the board with different scenarios to address the deficit. She said that ridership on the up-Island routes was low in the winter months, and it could save the VTA money if those were reduced. He said that an average of 69 people a day were using five of the up-Island routes from December to April, and the VTA is essentially subsidizing those riders $29 each way.
“There are people who commute to work, and they are important … my sense from the meeting is that nothing is permanent,” Snider said. “I think that this is hopefully temporary, and we won’t have to take out as much next year.”
Updated to add comments from Grant and route information. — Ed.