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Funding Drive

Regional public transit plays a vital role in communities across Massachusetts, but the current funding approach is fragmented, unfair to those living in rural areas, and unable to fully meet the needs of residents statewide, according to a report released by the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts and the Quaboag Connector.

Research support was provided by the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University, which examined the operational funding landscape for regional transportation providers, including the “patchwork” of 15 regional transit authorities (RTAs) that offer fixed-route and on-demand bus and shuttle service to millions of residents living outside of Greater Boston, which is served by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA).

Regional public transit connects people to jobs, healthcare, education and many other daily activities and is a lifeline to those who cannot afford a car, choose not to own one, or cannot drive.

“Where residents live in Massachusetts should not determine their mobility or access to opportunity.”

The report found that the funding mechanism for RTAs lacks transparency, is overly reliant on local contributions relative to the MBTA, and does not adequately account for issues of regional, rural, or economic equity. It argues that a sustainable funding model is necessary to improve the efficacy and fairness of the transit system as a whole and to fill gaps in the current system.

“We must do more to eliminate transportation deserts and to ensure that urban and rural regions alike have access to public transit, not only within each region, but across a more connected system across the state,” said Dr. Amie Shei, president and CEO of the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts. “Transportation is a public good, and we must invest in it today so we can achieve the Commonwealth’s climate, economic-development, health, and housing goals of tomorrow.”

RTAs are more reliant on local contributions from the communities they serve than the MBTA system — about 20% versus just 8% to cover operating expenses. Setting aside any federal dollars, the gap is even wider, with 32% of the RTA system funded by local contributions versus 12% of the MBTA. In rural parts of the state, where the tax base is limited, these contributions amount to a significant financial burden for local municipalities and taxpayers.

The study was commissioned by the Quaboag Connector, a micro-transit initiative serving 10 rural communities west of Worcester and funded through a Synergy Initiative grant from the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts. The Quaboag Connector, led by the Quaboag Valley Community Development Corp. and the town of Ware, has provided more than 66,000 rides over the past several years, serving as a lifeline for local residents.

“Where residents live in Massachusetts should not determine their mobility or access to opportunity,” said Melissa Fales, executive director of the Quaboag Valley Community Development Corp. “This report underscores the critical need to incentivize connectivity across RTA service areas, particularly in rural areas, and to identify dedicated funding streams to support independent micro-transit efforts that are working to fill gaps across the Commonwealth.”

Advocates for transportation equity have called for increased state funding to support RTA operating expenses. “Providing accessible, affordable transportation to rural communities can have transformative impacts on community health, but there is currently no funding mechanism that incentivizes large-scale development of these programs or supports them sustainably in the long run,” said Jen Healy, Quaboag Connector program manager.

The report notes that, in addition to more funding, which should be based on publicly shared principles and stable funding over time, the distribution of funding across the RTA network should be reassessed, along with the incentives to expand service by RTAs or independent transit providers to underserved populations.

“Given how important regional transit is for mobility and economic opportunity around the state, there’s tremendous value in thinking about how best to support RTAs and other innovative players,” said Evan Horowitz, executive director of the Center for State Policy Analysis.  “The funding-by-inertia process we’ve got really isn’t up to the task.”

The report, titled “Regional Transit in Massachusetts: Where We Are and Where We Need to Go,” is available online at www.rideconnector.org/report.

“This report highlights the need for sustainable funding for regional transit and robust, coordinated planning to better provide transportation options for residents, particularly in rural areas,” said Pete Wilson, senior policy director of Transportation for Massachusetts, a statewide coalition focused on improving the Commonwealth’s transportation systems.  “Implementing the recommendations of this report will increase regional equity and sustainability for access to public transportation for all residents.”