The Route of the Problems for the PVTA

‘An agency in crisis.’

That’s how state Rep. Joseph Wagner (D-Chicopee) and House chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation, described the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority at one in a series of press conferences he’s called over the past few weeks to blast away at the authority and its management.

The pronouncement was inspired by the death of a PVTA rider, a user of the authority’s paratransit service who fell after being dropped at the wrong location by the PVTA’s vendor, California-based MV Transportation. It had the desired effect — another front-page headline in the local paper for Wagner, and some more embarrassment for beleaguered PVTA Administrator Mary MacInnes and her staff, as well as the authority’s advisory board.

But Wagner was just getting warmed up. He was back in front of the media with more artillery a few weeks later, calling for the state inspector general’s office to investigate the PVTA’s hiring of a replacement for MV without seeking bids; McInnes would later say the matter would go to bid, but denied pressure from the state to do so.

Crisis? Maybe. Chaos? certainly. Politics? Lots of it. Indeed, while controversy continues over the van contract, Wagner keeps summoning the press to his office and PVTA Advisory Board Chairman Richard Theroux keeps accusing the state representative of ax-grinding, specifically resentment over the board’s hiring of former Chicopee Mayor Richard Kos as interim administrator more than a year ago.

Whether ‘crisis,’ an overused and often poorly used term, really applies to the PVTA can be debated, but what can’t is the fact that the PVTA’s oversight structure needs reform, and we hope Wagner, while calling press conferences, can also take a real role in bringing it about — he insists that this is his primary mission.

Perhaps the place to start is with that 24-member advisory board, the model for which is simply not working. For starters, while the board is staffed with well-meaning individuals, many of them have no idea how to oversee a transit system, and some were chosen for mostly political reasons. Meanwhile, this is a weighted system, almost Medieval in its structure, in which all the power goes to the more heavily populated communities, such as Springfield, Chicopee, Holyoke, and Northampton (which have more riders than smaller towns, obviously) and their representatives to the board.

Things are made worse by the fact that the mayors of those cities feel it necessary to come out of their corner offices when there is a big vote — like the one on a new administrator (MacInnis didn’t win a majority of votes, but got the ‘right’ ones), or an interim administrator, or the paratransit contract — and leave their representatives at home.

The move to award MV that contract was a classic case of these mayors trying to save a little money (MV was the low bidder, but the previous firm had years of experience handling the paratransit service) and thereby fix something that wasn’t broken, and thus really break it in the process. The PVTA’s administration didn’t handle matters with the new vendor very well, but the problem started with the advisory board vote.

It probably makes sense that Springfield’s vote on the advisory board weighs more than Williamsburg’s (maybe one bus reaches that Hampshire County community). But something needs to be done to take at least some of the politics out of the oversight of the PVTA and encourage more-responsible management of one of the region’s most important assets.

It will be difficult to orchestrate such change here and across the regional transit authority system, but it needs to happen, because while the PVTA may or may not in crisis, it has more than its share of problems — a van load of them.