Public buses run through Berkshire County, but many people don’t even have a way to get to the bus stops.
Unable to afford personal vehicles, many residents miss out on job opportunities, health care services and other activities that can aid their well-being.
The Berkshire Regional Transit Authority will receive $975,000 to implement a “mobility-on-demand” pilot program, through which riders would be able to request rides via a digital app. And $1,507,000 will go to a proposed Berkshire transportation management association that would coordinate services to fill in transportation gaps.
Lack of access to first- and last-mile transportation hurts not only workers, but also employers, said Clete Kus, transportation program manager for the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.
“One of the biggest complaints [from major employers] is that they want to hire more employees, but the employees can’t get to the workplace,” Kus said.
The BRTA will contract a software vendor to produce an app that mirrors ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft, BRTA Administrator Robert Malnati said.
Some BRTA riders bring bicycles on buses to get from a bus stop to home or work, Malnati said, and he added that fixed routes might not always help workers with shifts at night or on weekends.
Mobility-on-demand service might be available as soon as six months after money is released, he said, and a pilot likely would start in a relatively population-dense area, such as North Adams or Pittsfield. It likely will use smaller existing fleet vehicles, such as paratransit vehicles.
Since it’s not cost-effective to send large buses on most local roads, “the availability of a smaller, more efficient transport coming through town on demand could … allow for longer and better hours of operation,” said state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru.
“We have an opportunity to build a system that works for us,” added state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield.
While most transportation management associations operate in smaller and more population-dense regions, a July feasibility study from 1Berkshire concluded that the Berkshires could benefit from a similar partnership.
A “collaborative system of transportation networking” in the Berkshires would provide more efficient and cost-effective commutes for workers, said Ben Lamb, 1Berkshire’s director of economic development.
Continuing outreach to major employers, Kus said, would be the next step in establishing an association. In many associations, participating employers provide revenue for the system and get a seat at the table for deciding how to coordinate transportation options.
“Essentially, we’re trying to recognize that we could benefit from a rethinking of how you provide transport with less density in the population,” said state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield.
BRTA and BRPC members, as well as health care leaders and other employers, might serve on a Berkshire group.
Infrequent bus routes can result in not only missed health care appointments, but also can inhibit people from accessing “different touchpoints” of health, said Lia Spiliotes, CEO of Community Health Programs in Great Barrington. Some people struggle to get to the pharmacy, the senior center or even the grocery store.
More ridership could provide the revenue to expand services, but when the bus runs infrequently, fewer people wait to take rides.
“The only answer to that — and I think we all know it — is an infusion of capital to expand what we’re capable of doing with the bus routes that we already have,” Spiliotes said.
A key area of need for some Berkshire Health Systems patients is getting from the northern part of Berkshire County to offices in Pittsfield, BHS spokesperson Michael Leary said. County Ambulance and Northern Berkshire EMS fulfill part of that need, he said, and BHS provides some vouchers for taxis and BRTA rides. Some MassHealth holders can get state-funded transportation when requested by a provider.
State of rail
A pilot for Berkshire Flyer service from Pittsfield to New York was set to begin as early as fall 2020 before legal issues delayed that plan. The bill will put $25 million more toward that project as it nears a debut.
While the bill makes $50 million available for proposed Pittsfield-to-Boston passenger rail, it would require federal funding and several more years to become reality. “West-east” rail, as local lawmakers call it, would cost an estimated $2.4 to $4.6 billion, according to the final report of the Department of Transportation’s East-West Passenger Rail Study.
In the meantime, state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said he supports expanding Pittsfield-to-Boston bus service to better gauge what rail ridership could look like.
“If you’ll take a bus now for four hours, I guarantee you 20 years form now, when this rail gets built, you’ll take a train for two-and-a-half or three hours,” said Pignatelli, who has clashed with the Department of Transportation over ridership estimates that he and others have called too low.
Some lawmakers also want to bring passenger service to the “Northern Tier” route from North Adams to Boston through Greenfield, a possibly less-expensive alternative that could, nonetheless, connect the region with economic opportunities further east.
“Is it the panacea? No,” said Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams. “But, it’s just another way of moving people, and it would create jobs.”
Although the December purchase of the railway by CSX Corp. might complicate discussions, the Department of Transportation is expected to begin work on a feasibility study of Northern Tier passenger rail as early as this year.