PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Berkshire Regional Planning Commission is revamping the regional transportation plan.
The plan serves as the master guidance document for the Metropolitan Planning Organization's use of federal transportation funds and Berkshire Regional Planning Commission's planning work.
"It is the big picture of transportation in Berkshire County," said transportation planner Eammon Coughlin.
The plan needs to be updated every four years and the process has just begun for the 2020 document. The plan is eyed to take a long-term look at the transportation needs now and into the future.
"It is a plan for 2020 but it tries to look forward to 2040," Coughlin said. "It is a real shoot for the moon type of plan. It is the big wish list for the county."
Already eyed for the next four years, based on the 2016 plan, there are 15 road projects totally $72 million scheduled, 21 bridges totaling $66 million, five bike paths totally $15 million, and three intersection improvements totally $6 million.
The county is mostly geared toward vehicle traffic. Coughlin said that is particularly because of the lack of density and a population primarily driving where they need to go.
But, with the county's population dropping, the current focus isn't on building any new roads but rather maintaining current roads and bridges. Coughlin said Massachusetts has one of the highest percentages of bridges in poor condition in the United States and that the work is expensive.
While most of the federal dollars tend to go toward road repairs, the plan does call for an increased focus on other modes. Coughlin highlighted a focus on the state's Complete Streets program, which ensures sidewalks and bike lanes are incorporated into road projects. He said the county has been able to reel in about $2 million worth of grants through that project.
Meanwhile, the bike path continues to be a focus. There are five projects in the works looking to build what would ultimately be a bike path through the Berkshires from Vermont to Connecticut. The Ashuwillticook Rail Trail is already serving a major part of that and will be repaved soon, and other projects are in line to build it farther to the south and north.
Public transportation is also an ongoing issue. The limited funding for the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority has lead to long headways, or waits, and few, if any, buses run on nights and weekends. BRPC staff is now part of a project to create a Transportation Management Authority that will bring together private businesses and non-profits to run shuttle services for employees.
"There is a shortfall in providing weekend and night service and it is thought a TMA can make up that gap to help people get to and from work," Coughlin said.
The 2016 plan called to reduce the headways from about an hour to 30 minutes and a pilot program was held connecting Councils on Aging in about a half-dozen towns to provide rides to medical appointments. However, Coughlin said that pilot didn't work because it ran for a short time, not allowing people to learn about it, and only had a few smaller towns.
For rail, the 2016 plan focused on restoring the Housatonic Rail Line to provide passenger rail from Pittsfield to New York City. But the lines in Connecticut haven't been restored, leaving Massachusetts at a dead end.
Instead, BRPC is at the table working on the Berkshire Flyer study, which would provide those rides on different lines only on a weekend basis. It is intended to shuttle tourists to the Berkshires and back for weekend trips.
The biggest task now is figuring out the "last mile," which is how visitors who get off the train in Pittsfield get to hotels.
"They may not have a rental car for them, a taxi, or an Uber to take them to the hotel they will be staying," Coughlin said.
The 2016 plan also placed a focus on the environment. It called for the development of more electric charging stations -- which there has only been one to open since -- improve pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure to reduce carbon emissions, and to prioritize projects that will improve stormwater runoff on roads. It also called for a focus on reducing collisions with vehicles and animals.
BRPC is also part of the I-90 interchange study. The idea is to create a new exit between 2 and 3 off the turnpike for residents there to have better access.
"It is still many many years away, maybe decades," Coughlin said.
Now the plan is eyed to be updated and BRPC wants residents to weigh in on it. The organization held its first public hearing, explaining the process, on Wednesday. Although it wasn't well attended, BRPC does have an online survey available to gather input. But June 2019, a draft of the plan is expected and BRPC plans to hold another hearing then.
"We also expect to have a public meeting after the holidays once we have a little bit more of a solid plan," Coughlin said.
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