The Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) is finalizing its winter routes schedule with the hope it will meet as many needs for Islanders as possible after cuts were made to address a $1 million budget deficit.
The $1 million deficit stems from $700,000 for the new union contract and wage increases for VTA bus drivers, following a month-long strike this summer, 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.
At a VTA advisory board meeting Friday, Andrew Grant, VTA’s transit systems engineer, informed the board about the planned winter service schedule, which is still being put together. Grant is responsible for planning routes each season, and giving data to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT). A “solid draft” will be ready by the end of next week. Since 85 percent of the VTA’s ridership is down-Island, several up-Island routes were cut or significantly downgraded, such as service to Lambert’s Cove.
Grant told the board there are essentially two systems transit authorities like the VTA follow: smooth headways, a schedule where buses leave at the same time every hour, and interline time-transfer, where buses work with other transits like the Steamship Authority (SSA) to meet boat times. The VTA will be focusing on an interline system, which also minimizes bus transfers.
The system also reduces the layovers, is more readily prepared for the SSA, and protects service to the most populated year-round neighborhoods and near the high school, YMCA, and Martha’s Vineyard Community Services during the off-season, according to Grant.
“Part of the thinking for this assignment was to not just think of the winter as like a watered-down summer schedule. It’s really focusing almost all about the year-rounders,” Grant said.
Some Sunday service will also return. Old County Road will be serviced in both directions, and a few trips on the route from Oak Bluffs to Edgartown will take an inland route via Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road.
Grant added the VTA will be “ramping up” its public outreach, and encouraged people to reach out to him about what they want to see in bus routes.
“We’re trying to look to be more positive about the service that we’ve got, because there are good things in here,” Grant said.
Adding to the VTA’s deficit is a decline in ridership, which has been down 15 percent since July, according to VTA administrator Angela Grant.
“The way to correct all of this, is for there to be riders on the bus,” she said. “We can talk about this until we’re blue in the face about how much service we want, but until people are actually on the bus and our ridership begins to rebound and increase, I don’t see this administration giving us any money.”
Angela Grant said the drivers’ strike this summer was part of the decline in ridership, but added that a national decline in ridership is catching up to the Island, with ride shares like Uber and Lyft playing a part as well. “Nationally, transit ridership has been down 10 percent in some areas, and as many as 15 percent in large cities over the last three to five years,” she said.
Jason Chalifoux, one of the VTA bus drivers who went on strike this summer, expressed urgency for the winter schedule. “Don’t forget, people are going to be out of jobs, so as quickly as you can get it would be nice,” Chalifoux said.
Grant gave board members a three-month draft financial statement of the current fiscal year, which began in July. The total operating cost for FY19 was $5.5 million.
Revenues are up 9.9 percent compared with last year, but are much lower than expected.
“I was hoping that number would be larger … but we’re not there yet,” Angela Grant said.
The VTA’s purchased transportation cost — which includes all Transit Connection Inc. expenses, such as legal fees and driver wages — was up 36.7 percent from last year. Several of the costs on the three-month draft, such as vehicle repairs and outside services, will change, according to Angela Grant. Once the VTA gets its capital contract from the state, it will be able to submit invoices for reimbursement.
“The overall cost structure went up over 21.89 percent, but our revenue did not,” Angela Grant said. “Had July, August, and September ridership been equal to last year, we would be in a much better situation going into the winter.”
Disabled rider representative Sarah Nevin asked Angela Grant to address the legal costs.
In July, the VTA spent $26,987 on Greg Dash, a consultant who assisted TCI during union negotiations, and another $27,125 in legal fees. Since the collective bargaining agreement was reached in July, TCI has spent $26,326 for fighting unfair-labor-practice claims, wrongful termination, and other grievances brought forward by the union.
She added that the VTA reimbursed TCI for $307,000 over five years for legal fees concerning the union before a collective bargaining agreement was reached.
“For the record, we never fought the union,” Chilmark representative Lenny Jason said, as several members of the audience laughed.
In other business, the board didn’t hold a vote, but they did agree to increase their meetings from four to five times a year to once a month. Tisbury representative Elaine Miller suggested the meeting increase, saying the board needs to be talking more regularly. In the future, meetings could be reduced.
“I think it’s going to make [Grant’s] life easier, we’re going to be more representative, we’re going to be able to answer questions to everybody out there, and we’re going to be on top of the game,” Miller said.
Jason suggested meetings be held on the second Friday of each month.
Miller also suggested that board members have term limits. Aquinnah board representative June Manning agreed with Miller
“I think people who are on a board for 20 years, 25 years, are wonderful, but you need fresh approaches to any organization,” Miller said.
There was disagreement over the ability of board members to set term limits, so Grant said she would speak to counsel and get more information to present at the board’s next meeting.
The board elected Miller to its audit and finance subcommittee after Edgartown representative Mark Snider declined.