Our FRTA saga begins! For those who don’t know, the FRTA covers Franklin County, the least dense county in Massachusetts, with a hub in Greenfield. It is a very rural system, and that makes it a really interesting one to review. We begin with its route that runs the furthest east (and thus the furthest toward Boston), the 32.
The 32 is the connection between FRTA and MART, allowing for a two-seat ride from Greenfield to Gardner, and further connections on both ends. My friend and I didn’t come via MART, though – in order to ensure we’d be able to finish the whole system in a day, we drove to Orange early in the morning and grabbed the second 32 of the day from there. It has this big loop around which buses go counterclockwise in the morning and clockwise in the evening, so we went to the first stop on that loop and waited.
Right on schedule, a fancy New Flyer MiDi bus came flying in…but the driver didn’t stop! We had to flag it down and it pulled to a halt a little down the road. “This isn’t a stop,” the driver said as we got on. But…but Orange Riverfront Park is listed as a timepoint! The description for this stop on the list of them (which is funny that such a rural system even has fixed stops) says: “On E River St, at entrance to park across from bar.” Well, no bar exists as far as I can tell, and the FRTA doesn’t put signs at a lot of its stops, so who the heck knows. We got on, regardless.
We headed down East River Street in our fancy MiDi, which felt super weird in the best way possible. The road was a bit of a hodgepodge, with individual houses, apartment developments, a few businesses here and there, and a lot of woods and fields. Passing the tiny Orange Municipal Airport, we then took a left onto Daniel Shays Highway when East River Street ended.
This road featured similar scenery to before, but it also featured a bridge over the Millers River. We entered Athol along here and took a left onto Main Street, and right at the border between Athol and Orange, we pulled into a Hannaford. This is the transfer point between FRTA and MART, and right on cue, a MART truck minibus growled its way into the parking lot. We took a brief layover here.
A few people actually made the MART-FRTA transfer, so we pulled out of Hannaford with some new passengers. Continuing down South Main Street, it was still a weird mix of stuff, with a few houses and random businesses (including a Tractor Supply Co., which made sense for the area) between the trees. We picked up a few more people at a lovely Walmart deviation, and from there the buildings started to get denser.
We were eventually among the faded brick buildings and empty storefronts of Orange Center, turning onto Water Street to serve the sorry little shelter that serves as Orange’s main bus hub. From there, we curved around Memorial Park, then we used Main Street to get across the Millers River again before taking a right onto River Street. There were houses for a bit, but we soon made our way up a hill into the woods.
We reached a highway interchange with Route 2 and merged on, starting what I suppose is an “express section”, but it’s the last proper interchange on the highway. There are no stops along here, though, and we were just speeding down the two-lane road past lines of trees (in a city bus, remember!). A bridge over the Millers River provided some views of mountains.
The first building along Route 2 was a factory, and then an auto shop a little later. There were some houses on a hill to the right after that, and once the road gained a sidewalk, we were in “Erving Center.” This tiny downtown had some residences, a few small businesses (including one in the old train station), and a town hall that looked like a community church. We sailed right through.
It was pretty much straight back to forest after that, with a town cemetery and a few houses here and there. The road was built up on a mountain next to the Millers River, but it eventually descended to join up with it for a bit. We ran through a little village called Farley with a decent amount of houses; despite being “dense” (relative to everything else), though, it doesn’t have a stop.
Besides Farley, it was all woods until the road suddenly curved north and civilization rushed in out of nowhere. We were in Millers Falls, and we got our first stop request: someone got off at a bowling alley next to a Dunkin’ Donuts, a post office, and an apartment development. The bus did a loop here, ending up on Lester Street to go under a Route 2 overpass.
There were pretty dense houses along here, and when we turned onto Bridge Street to cross the Millers River, we were in Millers Falls Center. There weren’t many businesses here (it was basically a one-block main street), but it did have a really cute library. We took a right onto that Main Street in the opposite direction of downtown, now following the route of the 23. Ascending a hill, there were a few more blocks of dense houses before we were back in the woods.
This didn’t last for nearly as long, though. Some industrial buildings and a small, dense mobile home park were centered around Turners Falls Airport, and there were pretty consistent (if not particularly close-together) houses along the road after that. As the road changed to Unity Street, we arrived at a surprisingly major stop located next to and named after “Scotty’s Convenience Store.” It even had a shelter!
Unity Street came down a hill, but dense houses occupied every area with flat land. We continued our descent on 3rd Street, which passed a park before heading into the surprisingly dense Turners Falls Center. Like, there were rowhouses here! We took a left onto Avenue A, Turners Falls’s main street, and it was…awesome? Yeah, it was lined with two- and three-story brick buildings, and they had lots of interesting businesses inside!
Also, we were making regular pickups along here, and it got to the point where the bus was literally standing room only. An FRTA bus…with a standing load. I was not expecting this! We passed a suburban shopping center at the south end of downtown, and it got less dense from there, with suburban houses and a golf course along what was now called Montague City Road.
Still, the houses were consistent right up to the rusty (and frankly a bit scary) bridge over the Connecticut River. They kept on going on the other side as we entered Greenfield, but we eventually hit a small industrial area before the road curved west and its name changed to Cheapside Street. That didn’t last long, as we soon merged into Deerfield Street, and after a mix of industrial buildings (including the FRTA garage), businesses, and houses, we pulled into the JWO Transit Center. One down, six to go!
FRTA Route: 32 (Orange/Greenfield)
Ridership: The FRTA’s counts are from 2015, so things may have changed since then (the system itself was even semi-redesigned, affecting a few routes down the line) – at that time, the 32 got 96 passengers per day, which evens out to around 7 per trip. Well, I don’t know if the route’s peaky or if ridership has gone way up since then, but my morning rush journey got 21 riders!
Pros: The ridership seems to be there! And it’s there for good reason: the route provides an important connection to Orange, and it’s especially valuable thanks to the MART transfer there. I’ll bet the route has good ridership in both directions thanks to strong draws on both ends of it. There’s a lot of rural running in between, but that’s par for the course for FRTA. Plus, there are some great views!
Cons: Okay, I get that it’s a rural route, but aside from being really infrequent, the 120-minute headways are problematic for another reason: the MART connection is every 90 minutes! If the FRTA can scrounge up the resources to get the frequency of the 32 to 90 minutes, that would allow every trip to have a timed transfer with MART, which would be huge. One more trip at night (the last one leaves at 5 PM right now) would be awesome, and weekend service would be even better, but baby steps.
Nearby and Noteworthy: Okay, the FRTA has a route more or less dedicated to serving Turners Falls, so I’ll save that for then. For the 32, that leaves Millers Falls, Erving, and Orange. Millers Falls is the most interesting of the three, but you’re probably going to want a car to experience any of these places – a bus every two hours is really hard to plan around.
Final Verdict: 6/10
Yeah, these are gonna be really weird to score. For most bus routes, service every two hours would be blasphemy. But…the FRTA serves really rural places, and it’s working on a shoestring budget, even compared to other RTAs, so it deserves slack. This route does its job reasonably well, and the fact that so many people use it now seems to be a sign that it could sustain better service. Again, having a bus every 90 minutes to match up with MART should be the main goal for now, but other improvements would be welcome, too.
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