Senate President Hears Berkshire Transit Challenges, Opportunities
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Berkshires need to re-envision how it handles transportation.
That was the message sent to Senate President Karen Spilka on Friday when state Sen. Adams Hinds brought her to the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority's Intermodal Center to discuss rural transportation.
The new vision includes east-west rail, rail to New York City, and a Transportation Management Authority. The concept comes about because fixed-route bus services are not doing the trick alone.
"This issue of transportation for the business community alongside workforce is the biggest challenge," said 1Berkshire President Jonathan Butler, who stressed that transportation is important in all factors of life in the Berkshires.
Doug McNally, who sits on the BRTA Board of Directors, said it is also an issue of aging in place. In his town of Windsor, once somebody gets too old to drive, he or she has to move out because there is no public transit.
One of the more recent ideas being kicked around is a Transportation Management Authority. Zach Feury headed a Massachusetts Design Lab, hosted by Hinds, to delve deeper into the issue. At first what came about was the concept of having a "figure 8" route connecting downtowns. But that idea has since morphed.
"It is not so much a lack of transportation assets in Berkshire County, but a lack of coordination of those assets," Feury said.
Instead, the new idea is to bring those who have transportation infrastructure — school buses, Council on Aging vans, companies with shuttles — to come together and create an authority to provide rides. The model is aimed to provide transportation to places where there isn't a high enough concentration of people to make it economically feasible to run a typical bus.
BRTA Administrator Bob Malnati said the Berkshires don't have the economy of old when rides were mostly only needed during weekdays. Now, the demand is there for nights and weekends. Malnati said the BRTA doesn't have the resources to provide that and that is why it has joined the effort to establish some sort of TMA.
"There are a bunch of fleets that are already out there and exist," he said.
But exactly how that model will work is still in the process. Butler said in the group's efforts "we haven't found a model that looks like us." Instead, the group is going to have to stitch together other models in existence to craft one that works for the Berkshires. He added that it is going to need private sector involvement.
"I can feel the passion and the momentum. I think the more conversations we have about this, the more avenues and more creativity and innovation, I think that will be the answer," Spilka said.
Spilka said she knows what underfunded RTAs are like. In her district at first many of her towns weren't legally allowed to be part of an RTA. She was able to change that law and now there is the MetroWest RTA. But even still, she said there needs to be more.
"We're not where we want to be. We would love to have evening service, weekend service, we are not there yet but that is one of the reasons I pushed for $8 million more," she said. "We really need a statewide vision, and I stress statewide, in the near future."
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier emphasized that resources need to go to the Berkshires and not "get stuck on [Interstate] 91." She said often those in state government will boast about giving money to Western Massachusetts but seldom does it find its way beyond I-91 to the westernmost county of Berkshire.
Part of that is funding to repair roads. Bernard thanked Spilka for the new allotment of Chapter 90 funds. But, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Thomas Matuszko said funding overall still remains a problem.
Matuszko said there are 1,600 miles of local roads and each town gets less than $200,000 in Chapter 90 funds each year. He added there are more than 160 small bridges that are costly to repair. And right now the funding formula puts the small rural towns at a disadvantage.
"The funding issue is real for our communities. We don't have the equalized values that others do out here," Matuszko said.
Meanwhile, Hinds has been pushing the Berkshire Flyer. The concept is to provide seasonal tourist trains from New York City to the Berkshires. The intent is to bolster the tourism economy by bringing in a new crop of visitors.
"We've gone, in 18 months, from an idea to a pilot on the horizon," Hinds said.
Twice Spilka voted in favor of it and Hinds said next year he'll be asking for money again for implementation.
Yet that pilot program is still ongoing. Butler said the focus now is on providing the "last mile" transportation and developing a marketing plan to reach those living in Manhattan.
"We want to bring new people to the Berkshires, people who are not coming here now. We are thinking young couples, and people who do not have vehicles in New York City," Butler said.
But advertising in New York City isn't cheap.
Matuszko said there is a lack of ride-sharing companies like Uber but that could change if there is a demand. The group wants to identify ways people can get to where they want to go after they get off the train in Pittsfield.
"The fixed route won't work right now because of the way it is structured and the time it will come in," Matuszko said.
A vendor has been identified to provide those options and Matuszko said the group is working on expanding rental-car options. That would also include the city making space in a new garage but that new garage is not likely to be funded.
Pittsfield's Director of Community Development Deanna Ruffer pitched funding for the garage but all indications from the state have shown that the city won't receive funds to build it. Instead, the Columbus Avenue garage is likely to be torn down this winter and replaced with a surface lot. That lot is across the street from where the Berkshire Flyer would be letting passengers off.
"Going back to a surface lot will probably squeeze us," Ruffer said.
Hinds is hoping for continued support on the issue. Hind repeated his common outlook of the future — Hind's sight 2020, perhaps? — saying that by 2020 there will be trains from New York City to the Berkshires, by 2020 there will be the Berkshire Innovation Center opened, and by 2020 there will be high-speed internet throughout the county.
"There is a lot to be optimistic about right now," Hinds said.
Tags: Berkshire Regional Transportation Authority, state officials, transportation,