PITTSFIELD — Sixty-four percent of Berkshire Regional Transit Authority riders have no cars and rely on the service as their primary, or only, means of transportation.
Limited hours and resources can make the reality tough for that 64 percent. BRTA buses operate weekdays from 5:45 a.m. to 7:20 p.m., Saturdays from 7:15 a.m. to 7 p.m., and there is no service on Sundays.
"Without our service, they wouldn't be able to get to work, shopping locations, all of the above," Berkshire Transit Management Inc. General Manager Kirk Dand said. "If you're in New York City and you don't have a car, fine, that's the norm. Out here, if you don't have a car, you're stuck and very beholden upon the transit service to get where you need to go."
He added, "We can get people to work but can't necessarily get them home if they're working a night shift, due to the limited hours we're funded for."
BRTA is seeking a $3 million boost in state funding for its operational budget in addition to eight new buses to expand services to meet these challenges and provide more complete services to users.
It surveyed customers to draw these conclusions about the need for expanded hours.
"Our customers have said they want later evening service, Sunday service, more frequency of service on the half-hour rather than on the hour," BRTA Administrator Robert Malnati said in a recent interview.
BRTA gave a total 574,418 bus rides in fiscal 2014, and gave 249,888 as of mid-December in fiscal 2016. The expansion of service they are requesting would certainly boost these figures.
Other community agencies like Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and Berkshire Community Action Council have supported BRTA in its request.
Jana Hunkler, director of transportation for Berkshire Community, argued for the expansion on economic grounds in a recent interview.
"The lack of affordable, flexible, reliable transportation creates insurmountable challenges for low- to middle-income individuals and families trying to find and retain work, access job training programs, schedule and attend medical appointments, and even put fresh, healthy food on the table," Hunkler said. "It makes good business sense to financially support a transportation option for low-wage earners."
Meanwhile, the agency is also trying to expand awareness and usage among the disabled, elderly and others through "Travel Training" services, which educate potential users on how best to take advantage of the system.
"It's really starting to take off," Dand said. "We want them to feel comfortable with our system. Generally, from there, they start going shopping and doing things independently, then they'll go talk it up to their friends. I think it's huge, because it's so easy to just end up being shut in."
He added, "But we don't restrict it to the disabled community, or the elderly community. It's for anybody that wants travel training. We didn't want to have tunnel vision on this because there's so many people who might use our system that maybe wouldn't unless they felt comfortable in doing so."
BRPC has estimated the county's 25-year transportation needs — which BRTA figures into — as something like $1.3 billion, but a huge shortfall exists. In the estimate, BRTA bus services costs figured in at $100 million and vehicle replacement was estimated to cost $15 million.