BerkshireRides to serve last rider at end of June

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NORTH ADAMS — The daily bus runs of a North County transportation program for low-wage workers will cease at the end of next month, leaving those who depend on the service with uncertainties.

"If I were to hazard a guess, I would think that people [who rely on the service] will be out of work," Jana Hunkler, the program manager of BerkshireRides, said in an interview Wednesday.

Hunkler and other employees of the program's administrating organization, Berkshire Community Action Council, along with local lawmakers, fought to preserve BerkshireRides, but ultimately came up dry. June 30 is the last day buses will run.

Since 2002, low-wage workers who don't own cars; students, non-English speakers, interns and other trainees have taken advantage of BerkshireRides, where they could grab a one-way ride for $3.25 — the present rate — or less in earlier years.

More than 700,000 rides for nearly 6,000 individuals have been provided over the life of the program, originally brought to North County through the advocacy of retired U.S. Rep. John W. Olver.

The service picked up riders at or near their homes and brought them to specific work or school destinations in North County and, in earlier years, Pittsfield.

It was "affordable, flexible and filled the huge gap in transportation in [North County]," according to BCAC.

Until recently, federal funding covered roughly 90 percent of the more than $400,000 annual cost of BerkshireRides; ridership fees covered the rest.

Funding for the program became precarious after Olver retired, when Congress reassigned the funds paying for BerkshireRides to a larger pool of transportation money intended for a different population — the disabled and elderly.

It then became a yearly battle to pay for the program, and one BCAC Executive Director Deborah Leonczyk said she knew they would eventually lose, as BerkshireRides was starting to cost BCAC money.

"It just couldn't go on forever," Leonczyk said. "We worked tirelessly to try to find replacement funding, to no avail. We were really left with no choice."

Attempts to save the program reached state and federal transportation agencies and local, state and federal officials, Leonczyk said.

BerkshireRides was maintained over recent years through state grants and other efforts, though it did suffer. Cuts hurt the scheduling of rides — requiring riders to travel further to find a bus and wait longer before being picked up. Rides to Pittsfield were cut.

As a result, the program experienced a corresponding dip in ridership.

This was also the period when BCAC took over administrating the program. Before, it had been its own nonprofit agency administered by a transportation company out of Washington, D.C.

State Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams, and state Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, advocated for the program in Boston and tracked down sums of state money to sustain it after the federal money dried up.

"It's been an uphill battle the last few years," Cariddi said. "Everyone knows the kind of needs we have, and it's very unfortunate that this is where the program lies at the moment."

Cariddi and BCAC said they will be working hard to fill the gap.

"One of the things I hope can come about is an expanded [Berkshire Regional Transit Authority] service in the area," Cariddi said. "I believe they're already working on it."

Cariddi said she'd had "informal," encouraging discussions with the BRTA leadership. An email to BRTA Administrator Robert Malnati was not immediately answered on Wednesday.

"We're not going to throw in the towel," Hunkler said. "If this model is no longer sustainable, it means we need to develop another, local model, so we don't get into this situation again."

"One of the most important barriers we need to overcome here in Berkshire County is the lack of affordable transportation," Leonczyk said. "BCAC is very sorry to see this program go, but we're not giving up."

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.


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