BRTA seeks to replace BerkshireRides


PITTSFIELD — There's no immediate solution to the impending shutdown of BerkshireRides, a North County transportation program for low-wage workers, but county officials are playing the long game.

A modest bump in the fiscal 2017 budget will allow a "baby steps" expansion of Berkshire Regional Transit Authority bus services, said Robert Malnati, Berkshire Regional Transit Authority administrator said this week.

"We need to start doing something, otherwise we're never going to get this [service expansion] off the ground," Malnati said.

Berkshire Community Action Council announced last week that BerkshireRides, which offered rides to and from North County workplaces for $3.25, will shut down at the end of June because its federal funding source has dried up. That service, which is used by about 130 regular users, served a vital role for many in rural parts of the county that offer little, if any, means of public transportation.

A 2013 local transportation service analysis found BRTA in need of eight more buses and $3 million to expand its services to include new routes — including one in downtown North Adams, more frequent buses and Sunday service.

During a regional coordinating council meeting at BRTA on Thursday, members discussed ways the agency could potentially help BerkshireRides customers.

Malnati said plans to expand BRTA services are "in their infancy right now. We're going to have to talk to employers. Where do we want a service expansion? In Pittsfield or North Adams, between their downtown and Walmart?"

Meanwhile, a bill pending in the state Legislature authored by state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, proposes to allow the creation of transportation finance regions with the power to tax for local needs.

Downing said there's not a place in Massachusetts that doesn't require significant investment in roads and public transportation.

"The real solution is not to continually fight over how we cut up a pie that's too small," Downing said. "And there isn't a real appetite for new taxes and revenues in the [Baker] administration and among the House leadership. One way to address the problem is by allowing local districts to raise revenues to keep locally and spend on local priorities."

He added, "It's more of a long-term fight. The transportation needs of the greater Boston area and the Berkshires differ significantly. But both would benefit from more flexible local control."

In both "red states and blue states," Downing said, going this route has won the enthusiastic support of residents, who generally agree to tax themselves for the services.

The Baker administration budgeted $80 million for transportation in fiscal 2017 — a flat budget — but the state Senate boosted the figure to $84.1 million.

Malnati said this added roughly $127,000 to BRTA's $6 million transportation budget — a relatively small sum but enough to try some new things.

"While BRTA is not perfectly positioned to meet all of [the needs of BerkshireRides customers], they certainly can meet some," Downing said. "But we need a viable, sustainable funding source, and we just don't have it right now."

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.


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