Letter asks Baker to put Berkshire County representative on long-range transportation panel
Berkshire County doesn't have a place on the Governor's Commission on the Future of Transportation in the Commonwealth — a group that aims to create a framework for the next 20 years of getting around in the state — but local delegates are trying to amend this omission.
On Wednesday, the area's four house delegates and state senator wrote a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker about the lack of representation on the day-old commission and encourage him to make a change. Of particular concern is the area's major projects and needs — an East-West rail, a railway system that better connects the Berkshires to New York state, and expanding services provided by the Berkshire Regional Transportation Authority — not being included in Massachusetts' future transportation plans.
"First of all, it is good news that there is a transportation commission," said state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield. "But we absolutely need a voice at the table from Western Mass. — or more — and the four counties."
Hinds added that he and the region's House delegation are pushing for more inclusion on the commission. "Very rarely are things a done deal. We're going to engage with the governor on this for sure."
On Tuesday, Baker announced the creation of an 18-member Commission on the Future of Transportation in the Commonwealth, the findings of which will advise Baker and his administration in their transportation planning. Key areas the commission is charged with investigating are climate and resiliency; transportation electrification; autonomous and connected vehicles, including ride-sharing services; transit and mobility services; and land use and demographic trends.
"The transportation issues faced in rural communities are quite different than those found within the greater Boston area and other urban communities," said Rep. Paul Mark, D-Dalton. "It is extremely important that our voices are heard and potential solutions that would actually work in our communities are included in any statewide plan that might arise from this commission."
Four Berkshire County delegates noted that the county sends about $30 million annually to Boston, via the sales tax, to help support the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. That money should, at the very least, provide them with a spot at the table when the future of the state's transportation is being discussed, the representatives said.
"This is an example of how Governor Baker does not govern for the entire state," said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield. "We can't continue to invest in one part of the state at the expense of the rest of us."
Money to fund public transportation in Massachusetts comes from the federal government, fuel taxes, motor vehicle sales tax, tolls and the Registry of Motor Vehicles, among other sources, as well as individual authority fees-for-service collected. In 2016, the most recent information available, the MBTA got $187 million from the state to operate 2,500 buses and trains across 175 communities. The state's 15 regional authorities split $82 million to support 1,400 vehicles across 231 communities.
In the letter signed by all four of the area's representatives, as well as Hinds, officials pointed out the financial division of funds, as well as the area's current and future transportation needs, and said they cannot "support" a commission without Berkshire County representation.
"We cannot agree completely on a commission created to address tomorrow's transportation needs while our districts are facing a virtual lack of viable public transportation options today," the letter read, in part. "We were not given an adequate degree of representation."
While there is no Berkshire County member on the commission, Western Massachusetts as a whole has one representative in the group: Pioneer Valley Transit Authority CEO Sandra Sheehan, who is charged with conveying the unique transportation needs of thousands of people scattered across 2,850 square miles — 946 of those square miles are in Berkshire County — that include not only swaths of rural country, but suburbs and cities, too.
And when compared with the rest of the commonwealth, Berkshire County suffers in its lack of available public transportation. For example, there's no bus service on Sundays.
"We are limited in how we can serve our residents," Farley-Bouvier said, "and wherever you see an investment in public transportation, that investment is in economic development."
Berkshire County delegates said the lack of representation is another example of the infamous East-West divide, in which the needs of the rural, less-populated western part of the state go unmet while problem-solving energy and dollars are spent on the eastern half.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said Western Massachusetts needs to be better represented, otherwise people in Boston might not recognize the challenges people in various geographies face. As an example, Pignatelli pointed to a similar problem that Boston and the Berkshires share: finding transportation for people, who do not own cars, to work and back.
"If a young person in Berkshire County wants to work in a restaurant on a Saturday night, if they don't own a car, how are they supposed to do that?" Pignatelli said, referencing the BRTA's few late-night hours.
"You don't get that job," he continued. "But if you're in Boston, you hop on the T, get an Uber. We have similar issues, but dramatic differences."
Baker launched the commission through Executive Order No. 579 to provide expert analysis on what 2020-2040 will bring as far as transportation challenges and improvements, and how the changes will impact Massachusetts. Baker said the unpaid commission members will meet monthly and deliver a report on their findings no later than Dec. 1, 2018.
"This commission will advise our administration on the future of transportation in Massachusetts that sensibly accounts for impending disruptions due to changes in technology, climate, demographics and more," Baker said in a statement.
Chaired by Baker's former chief of staff, Steven Kadish, the commission will bring in a range of nonprofit groups, academics and stakeholders to advise. Other members of the commission hail from the eastern part of the state, but not from Cape Cod, which, like Berkshire County, has no representative on the commission.
"Someone from Berkshire County should be on there; there's no reason we shouldn't have someone on there," said Rep. John Barrett, D-North Adams. "Hopefully, this is just an oversight but it has happened too many times in the past."
Sheehan, the lone representative for Western Massachusetts, was unavailable for comment Wednesday. According to the brief biography supplied by the governor's office, Sheehan is a Hampden resident and, before joining the PVTA, she worked in the Hartford, Conn., transit district. She earned her bachelor's of science in civil engineering from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and her master's degree from Western New England University in Springfield.
"At least we have someone representing something past Worcester," said Berkshire Regional Transit Authority CEO Robert "Bob" Malnati, who declined to comment further Wednesday, due to an unfamiliarity with the newly formed commission's goals.
Other members of the commission include representatives from: the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, New England Power Generators Association, Urban Planning and Public Policy at Harvard University, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Worcester Regional Research Bureau, UMASS Donahue Institute, ChargePoint (electric vehicle charging stations), Merrimack Valley Planning Commission and the Urban Strategy America Fund.
Looking to the future is always important, said Nathaniel "Nat" Karns, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, but he's concerned about the state's focus on investing in infrastructure construction rather than maintenance — as well as the lack of Berkshire County representation on the commission.
"We are woefully underfunding even just the maintenance of the transportation system," Karns said. "No one seems to be willing to tackle the primary issue, which is providing more operating funds. It's easy to buy a bus; it's more difficult to run one, at least from a funding standpoint.
"The MBTA wants everyone else to support their service, and it's inequitable," he continued. "I'm certainly hopeful that they're looking at the equity issues, which fundamentally, comes down to money."
Kristin Palpini can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and @kristinpalpini on Twitter.
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