Clarence Fanto: Helping BRTA helps community
LENOX -- Why should "B" bus service be expanded since nearly everyone in Berkshire County has a car, or access to one?
That's a misconception, of course. A well-attended forum at Berkshire Community College last Monday on public transit drove home the point. Because of funding shortfalls, BRTA service shuts down after 8 p.m. and all day Sunday.
At the discussion organized to follow up a just-released report by the nonpartisan independent think tank MassINC, BCC President Ellen Kennedy bemoaned the plight of students who want to take night classes or participate in after-hours and weekend activities such as theater productions but lack transportation to reach the campus three miles west of downtown Pittsfield.
BRTA Administrator Gary Shepard, an outspoken and feisty advocate, acknowledged that the bus route to BCC is one of the system's most popular. But the last bus leaves BCC at 5 p.m. on weekdays.
A survey of BRTA bus riders shows that 65 percent do not own a car, nor does anyone in their family; 53 percent ride the bus daily -- many of them to and from work.
Even if Gov. Deval Patrick's ambitious transportation spending proposal passes on Beacon Hill, it would not cure the BRTA's budget woes.
Patrick's plan would increase funding to the state's 15 regional transit authorities by $100 million. The BRTA would be in line for a 168 percent increase, bringing its state support from $1.9 million currently to $5.1 million a year.
But, as Shepard explained, that increase would only enable the BRTA to start budgeting its operations in advance -- "forward funding," in bureaucratic lingo -- instead of borrowing several million dollars each year to finance operations through "revenue anticipation notes."
A separate pool of Department of Transportation funding -- $400 million over 10 years -- could add new buses to expand service.
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier decried the 20 percent slice of sales tax revenue from the Berkshires and the rest of the state now funneled to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, struggling with a tsunami of $160 million in red ink for its Boston-area public transit operations.
"The MBTA is a deep, dark hole of financial instability," the Pittsfield Democrat declared. "People in the Berkshires shouldn't have to keep bailing out the T."
Farley-Bouvier is pushing her proposal that would replace the state's gas tax with a "pay as you drive" tax system, with varying rates, based on mileage driven.
"People think of the gas tax as a user fee and this vehicle-miles traveled program would be a smarter user fee," she explained. "The key is to raise revenue in a fair way."
Upgraded bus service would be an economic boon, according to Berkshire Chamber of Commerce President Michael Supranowicz. A recent survey of his members showed support across most industries for public transportation enhancements. He noted the county's service-industry dominance, with establishments open 24 hours.
The transportation forum also heard public appeals for better Pittsfield to Boston train service and support for proposals to link Berkshire County to Manhattan by rail, a potential boon for tourism. Mayor Daniel Bianchi urged public transit connections to the Albany area.
It all comes down to a political will at the Statehouse to come up with a formula, based on Gov. Patrick's blueprint, that would address at least some public transit needs. Unfortunately, a solution remains just as elusive as finding nighttime and Sunday bus service in our county.
Clarence Fanto, a regular Eagle contributor, can be reached at email@example.com.
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