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Despite Low Ridership, Springfield's Casino-Funded Bus Service Keeps Moving

A free bus service in Springfield, Massachusetts, that connects the MGM casino with area attractions and hotels isn't attracting a large number of riders, but the buses will keep running.

On a recent Friday morning, a Pioneer Valley Transit Authority bus pulled into berth nine at Springfield's Union Station. There wasn't the usual sound of a diesel engine, because it's an electric bus.

The service is called the Loop. Stops include MGM, the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Springfield Museums and a few hotels.

The bus departed Union Station with no passengers on board except for the reporter of this story.

As the bus went down Main Street,  a few people flagged it down and boarded.

Amber Rondeau and Luis Martinez of Holyoke said they were headed to a doctor's appointment near the Basketball Hall of Fame.

We're "riding it because it's free," Martinez said.

Rondeau added that the bus is "nice and warm [and] gets us closer, so we don't have to walk as far in the cold."

MGM has footed the bill for the Loop since it started in August of 2018, and has spent about $220,000 so far.

The service was included in the host community agreement MGM signed with Springfield and the state — sort of. The original language called for MGM to fund a fee-based downtown trolley system run by the PVTA.

But according to the PVTA, the trolleys it owns are not wheelchair accessible, and aren't well-suited for harsh winter weather, so it pitched an electric bus instead. MGM and the city agreed.

At the hotel Hilton Garden Hotel near the Basketball Hall of Fame, Rondeau and Martinez got off, and Joe Badaloto, who was staying at MGM for work, got on with a colleague.

"We had a conference and this is our first time to the Basketball Hall of Fame. It was good. Really awesome," he said.

They disembarked at MGM. No more passengers got on before the bus returned to Union Station.

According to Brandy Pelletier with the PVTA, four people total during the trip is close to what the Loop has been averaging — about 3.5.

"It's low, so if that was a regular route in our PVTA system, we would look at possibly eliminating it," Pelletier said.

Pelletier said the authority has received a grant of $25,000 from the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to market the Loop and increase ridership.

MGM's deal with the PVTA runs through next summer. The company can try to change up the arrangement, but it's required to keep paying for some short of shuttle — no matter how few people ride it.

PVTA driver Eddie Velazquez at the wheel of the Loop Bus.
Alden Bourne / NEPR
PVTA driver Eddie Velazquez at the wheel of the Loop Bus.
Amber Rondeau and Luis Martinez on the Loop bus in Springfield, Massachusetts, on December 13, 2019.
Alden Bourne / NEPR
Amber Rondeau and Luis Martinez on the Loop bus in Springfield, Massachusetts, on December 13, 2019.

Copyright 2019 New England Public Media

Before joining New England Public Radio, Alden was a producer for the CBS NEWS program 60 Minutes. In that role, he covered topics ranging from art, music and medicine to business, education, and politics. Working with correspondent Morley Safer, he reported from locations across the United States as well as from India, Costa Rica, Italy, and Iraq.

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