By JOYCE ROWLEY/ecoRI News contributor
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — Last year, after reports of fish-house workers being attacked while walking along MacArthur Drive to and from work, Bus Riders United (BRU) coordinator Siggy Meilus decided something needed to be done.
“Seafood processing industry workers are often paid in cash,” she said. “Their hours depend on when the fish are unloaded, and many are on call. The predators know this, and workers are often attacked on the way home.”
To address the problem, Meilus initiated a public transit study/survey in collaboration with the Southeastern Regional Planning & Economic Development District (SRPEDD). The resulting “Accessible Public Transit & the Seafood Processing Industry” study led to the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority adding the street to its bus route wish list.
The BRU study’s stories by assault victims are disturbing. One, identified only as Antolin, was beaten so badly by a group of men he spent four days in the hospital and two months recovering from his head wounds. He was robbed of everything except his keys: his cash, wallet, passport, cellphone and even his lunchbox were taken. It was 6 on a December evening and, as he explained, if someone hadn’t intervened, he is sure they would have killed him.
Another fish-house worker, who said he had been robbed three times on the walk home from work, recalled one attack when he was beaten by two men with a baseball bat. They took his wallet with his money and ID, and left the scene in their car. He walked to the police station and was taken to the hospital for his injuries.
In another account, J. Garcia was bicycling to work at a fish house early one morning with his wife when he was attacked from behind by two men on bicycles. They knocked him down and stabbed him in the stomach. He also was hit in the head with a rock, and lost an eye because of the attack.
Meilus said she began hearing about these attacks while performing tax preparation assistance at the Community Economic Development Center, BRU’s parent organization.
“After the study, we helped get legislation passed that required regional transit authorities to perform comprehensive service assessments,” Meilus said.
For the study, BRU surveyed 30 seafood processing industry workers and 39 employers to determine plant shifts and commuting patterns. About a third of the workers walk or bike to work; none use public transit. On the way home from work, even more walk or bike — some 40 percent — and about 7 percent take public transit.
Only a third of the workers have cars, and fewer than 10 percent can afford to take a taxi. The balance arrange for a ride with a friend; 78 percent of the workers said they would take a bus if it ran near their place of employment.
Meilus continues to push for bus service to the fish houses at meetings, and at an Oct. 22 SRTA public hearing bus route No. 5 with service to MacArthur Drive moved a step closer to becoming reality.
“The seafood processing industry is the third-largest employer in the city,” said Marty Burke, general manager at South Coast Transit Management, the company that operates SRTA. “People need to get to work.”
SRTA’s proposed route map shows a dozen seafood processing plants on MacArthur Drive. Bus route No. 5 Rivet Street, the closest route, currently runs several blocks west of MacArthur Drive, on Acushnet and Second streets. But access to it is restricted by Route 18, a four-lane divided access highway that is fenced off to pedestrians. Using the No. 5 currently now would mean walking for up to half an hour to get to the fish houses.
SRTA has proposed shifting the No. 5 east to MacArthur Drive and shifting bus route No. 1 Fort Rodman to capture the residential neighborhood ridership currently served by the No. 5.
Burke said only the location of the routes for No. 5 and No. 1 would change; frequency and hours would remain the same. Bus No. 5 runs from 6 a.m.-6:48 p.m. and No. 1 runs from 5:30 a.m.-8:50 p.m.
The proposed route change will go to the SRTA board of directors for approval in November and may happen as early as December.
“It will cost about $15,000,” said SRPEDD director of transit planning Shane Trimble. “But recent changes made to the SRTA Fall River routes 6, 9 and 10 will offset the cost.”
“Next we want to look at a route that would provide service to the fish houses at the north end of the city,” Meilus said.