PITTSFIELD, Mass. — After six months of work, the Berkshire Flyer subcommittee has an action plan to operate rail service from New York City to Pittsfield.
The plan calls for 20 weeks in the summer of passenger rail trips bring people from New York City on a Friday afternoon and home on Sunday. It is hoped to provide a significant boost to the region's tourism economy. The Department of Transportation previously did a feasibility study and agreed it would be worthy of a pilot.
State Sen. Adam Hinds then secured $100,000 to continue the planning for it and a working group of various stakeholders dug deeper into creating the action plan.
"It's been about a six-month process. We had our first meeting at the end of August. Our legislative charge is to get a report by March 1. It's been good engagement from all of the committee members and the organizations they represent," said 1Berkshire President and CEO Jonathan Butler, who headed the committee.
The group built on Amtrak's reported costs to run the service and work out the details of everything from how people will get around after they arrive here to marketing it so people know to administration. That report will be given to the Legislature on Friday and Hinds will be seeking money in the state budget to run a two-year pilot program starting in June 2020.
"We are in a good place. We needed to come into this year knowing the financial plan, the marketing plan, the last mile options for getting people around the county, and now we have that in place. In the next coming months we will work closely with DOT and Amtrak to get to an agreement and finalize state and federal money," Hinds said.
The service was estimated by DOT to cost $421,561 a year, with revenue estimated at $185,000. The working group will be asking for that plus money for marketing, to bolster BRTA service for the riders and the coordination of the last mile transportation needs.
Overall, the group is estimating it to cost $614,122 for both years of the pilot and has identified not only the state but also federal resources to pay for it. However, Butler cautioned that those estimates could change as pieces come to actual fruition.
"We've made pretty clear in the report what we can do at different dollar amounts. We know what we absolutely have to have in order for a train to operate period, to satisfy the needs of DOT and Amtrak. So those numbers are what it will take to make this successful," Butler said.
Butler said a critical piece to a successful pilot will be the marketing and 1Berkshire has agreed to take the lead on that. He's pushing for lawmakers to not only grant the operating funds but also a marketing budget.
"You can't bring a product to market if you're not spending the dollars to get those impressions about that product out there, people seeing it, feeling it, understanding what it is. We actually think the branding of this through existing channels and through new strategies is going to be critical," Butler said.
He added that the branding study, done by 1Berkshire and a subcontractor Brigade, established that the main market will be young professionals, under the age of 45. That brings a new type of visitor to the Berkshires, Butler said. He said the action plan includes different levels of trying to reach people and he said the large players in the tourism economy can be leveraged to bolster the marketing efforts.
"The trickiest piece is we are coordinating an active train service from New York City to the Berkshires and marketing it for the first time in a generation or two. That is tricky in itself with re-introducing something to the Berkshires. While it is a pilot, it is the first time we've done this in a long time. I would say its been interesting navigation of stakeholders," Butler said.
He said the level of state support and the level of leveraging existing marketing will determine the full scope and plan for marketing.
"We're going to continue work with the senator's office and DOT to hammer out a final budget," Butler said.
The plan also calls for a shuttle service provided by a local car service company to bring people around after they get off the train. The rider would be able to purchase the tickets and the shuttle service through Amtrak. It also notes the existing shuttle services provided by places like Kripalu and Canyon Ranch as ways to connect riders to their designations.
The plan also calls for a BRTA connector bus to run the guests to different parts of the county from the Intramodal Center when the train arrives, and back before it leaves. The group also identified that there are rental car options - and the city of Pittsfield has agreed to designate parking spots for rental cars near the Intramodal Cente - and noted that rideshare options have been growing in availability in the county. It also noted the use of taxis.
"While we often point to how difficult it is to get around this region, there are a lot of things that are working well. This process gave us an opportunity to look at some of those and talk about how to scale them, how to better coordinate them. We may be able to make some of those things work for Berkshire Flyer riders and lay the foundation for how we make them work for the residents of the Berkshires," Butler said.
Hinds said he is pleased with the 41-page report detailing how the Berkshire Flyer will operate.
"1Berkshire and BRPC always step up to the plate when you need them and they did again. It's a great product," Hinds said of the plans.
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