The big issue was: public transportation!
The council meeting started on an unusually uplifting note: There was a small group of people wearing sunny robes chanting in front of Town Hall! I presumed they were Buddhist monks expressing support for the Council, who would be voting on proclaiming March 10th Tibet Day.
The Town Room was filled with supporters of the Tibet Day proclamation (which passed 12 to 0 to 1) as well as supporters of a resolution to change the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ flag and seal, an issue my wife has been working on. When she originally showed me the flag with the seal on it my jaw dropped. Its central shield features a Native American wearing inappropriate clothes for the region. Above the shield, a free-floating arm holds a sword, which immediately brought to mind the sword of Damocles. Underneath, a banner contains the state motto, which reads in Latin: “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.”
Although the motto’s rebuke was once directed toward the British, it reads differently today. When combined with an image that recalls the sword-point diplomacy dictating Euro-American relations with indigenous peoples, it implies that liberty for some might not mean liberty for all.
Town Council passed the resolution (10 to 0 to 3), which supports two bills filed in the State House calling for the redesign of the flag and seal. My fingers are crossed that these bills, which have been presented many times before, finally pass!
After these two orders of business were finished, the audience dwindled to the handful of usual suspects.
Town Manager Paul Bockelman announced that Douglas Slaughter would continue as the town’s representative on the board of the Pioneer Valley Transportation Authority. The PVTA is the body that oversees public transportation in our area and is the largest regional transit authority in Massachusetts.
In Amherst, the PVTA works in conjunction with UMass Transit to provide fare-free bus service in town to all riders, not just students, that is partially paid for by parking meter fees. What a brilliant quid pro quo! Undergraduates drive the buses and the cost of their licensure is covered as part of their paid training, giving them the opportunity to learn a trade in conjunction with earning their degree. Working with Five Colleges Inc., the PVTA also maintains fare-free rides between UMass and Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, and Smith Colleges.
Slaughter quickly reviewed how PVTA funding works, describing how funding comes from a mix of federal, state, and local money. The majority of the PVTA’s money comes from the state, which has level-funded it for the past several years. Rising expenses along with a decline in ridership has led to a significant budget shortfall, triggering across-the-board service cuts. There is often a causal relation between cuts and ridership declines. When lines are cut, riders find other means of travel, leaving less money for service (where fares are charged), leading to further cuts. Councilor Dorothy Pam referred to this as a “death spiral.”
Last year, Town Meeting voted to add more than $50,000 to the town’s Transportation Enterprise Fund, a portion of which is used to help fund PVTA service in town. Because of the charter, Town Meeting was unable to specify how this money would be spent and, as far as I know, it’s sitting unallocated in the Fund. Slaughter said that the PVTA is leery of keeping service running that it can’t maintain, and that the town has helped fund its services in the past. The Town Manager would have to approve this expenditure with guidance from the Council, and the town would have to enter into a contract with the PVTA that would financially oblige it to cover specific services. Slaughter said the most important question that the Councilors need to ask themselves is, “Is this money well spent?”
Councilors are certainly asking themselves this question in relation to every budget item that has been rapidly coming before them! How will they decide? One way is by taking issues under advisement.
The Transportation Advisory Committee (TAC) is charged with advising the Town Manager and Town Council “on all transportation matters.” It was created by consolidating a number of earlier transportation-related committees. While public transportation is under its purview, it has recently focused more broadly on developing a “Complete Streets Policy,” a program funded by the state Department of Transportation for planning roads that can safely accommodate walkers, bicycles and motorized vehicles.
For the past several years, myself and others have been working with the TAC to get a sidewalk built along East Pleasant Street where there currently is none. After moving from Boston to Amherst and living in the country for the first time, I was struck by how difficult it was to walk anywhere!
My family lives just off East Pleasant on one of the tributary streets north of UMass. East Pleasant is a key artery connecting downtown with UMass, Cushman Market, Puffer’s Pond and the North Amherst Village Center. All year round, people walk dogs, ride bikes, jog and commute by foot along East Pleasant. The speed limit for much of it is forty miles an hour and cars often drive faster. Although it has a walkable bike lane, it feels awful to be so close to traffic. When pushing a stroller and accompanied by my other child, it’s downright dangerous.
When I was a Town Meeting Representative, I approached Guilford Mooring, Superintendent of the Department of Public Works, to ask why there wasn’t a sidewalk on East Pleasant. He said that he had recently checked and that the earliest request was made in 1971, the year I was born! He told me it was up to the then newly-created TAC to put together a priority list that would determine the precedence of new sidewalks among other things—which ties back to advisement.
From my vantage point, East Pleasant Street is a major priority but there are many people in town who feel the same way about the street they live on, or about renovating a library, or about many other projects large and small that cost the town money. The most difficult job—indeed the primary job—that the Town Council and Manager face is how to negotiate these wants and needs within the constraints of the budget. The TAC’s job, as with many other committees, is to help them do so.
Although I’m pleased that a feasibility study for a new sidewalk on East Pleasant is now in the FY20 draft budget (and I hope it remains in the final version), I recognize that there are many pressing things that need to be done in town. This includes repairing existing roads and sidewalks as well as keeping public transportation alive.
The TAC would be well served by having the PVTA representative be an active, voting member and by having greater independence from the DPW. This would allow it to better consider how public transportation fits into Amherst’s master plan, along with non-motorized transportation. The TAC is the lynchpin that connects the DPW and the Planning Department with the Town Council and Manager. Almost nothing affects a broader swath of people’s daily lives more than transportation! The TAC has a big responsibility to live up to—as big as the Zoning Board or the Finance Committee. It should be given the leadership role, independence and support to do so.
Along with Complete Streets, the TAC has just completed a draft of a new Bicycle and Pedestrian Network Plan (found here). Given climate change, now is the time to make multi-modal transportation a town priority!