What started as a Great Barrington public transit committee now works to advocate for all of South County's transportation needs.
The committee, initially chartered with finding ways to modernize regional bus services, has expanded its scope, at least partly due to the anticipated long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
"Once we reach a new normal, I think many people will be more hesitant to use public transit — just being in close contact with maybe a few more people," said Tate Coleman, who chairs the committee formed after he proposed a route optimization initiative in January 2019. "So, we're now looking at other options."
The group, now known as the Great Barrington Regional Transportation Advisory Committee, welcomed members from several towns across southern Berkshire County at its Monday meeting conducted via Google Hangouts. It has morphed into a regional coalition, having expanded its 10-person membership to include representatives from Great Barrington, Egremont, Stockbridge, West Stockbridge, Monterey, Otis and Lenox.
"We're all going to have to work together, and South County really needs to have a South County voice," said Deb Phillips, the group's secretary. "The idea was to broaden the base, really understand what the various needs are, to use our voices and to advocate for more resources."
Providing transportation for seniors has become an accentuated priority, Coleman said, noting the increased health risks faced by elderly residents during the pandemic.
A new member, Ilene Marcus, of Monterey, suggested that the committee compile an inventory of transportation resources provided by local councils on aging and other sources beyond the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority, which provides bus service across the county. Marcus, who has worked on the board of the Monterey Council on Aging, said she sees opportunities for collaboration between groups that work on transportation.
For example, one item at the meeting was brainstorming solutions to transport two students from Great Barrington to Taconic High School for a vocational program. Pittsfield schools are planning to begin the year remotely, but Great Barrington previously had spent $500 a day on transporting those students, Coleman said.
Marcus suggested that taxi services used by the Monterey Council on Aging might make the trip for cheaper.
With a revised mission statement and a few fresh faces, the committee will send letters to local businesses to get greater input on the region's transportation needs. It also plans to send letters to town officials and state lawmakers outlining priorities for regional public transit.
Coleman, who was a high school student when the committee formed, continues to lead the charge, now a rising sophomore at Bard College at Simon's Rock.
Especially in towns where transportation options are few, ensuring that transit needs are met can make the difference in providing access to jobs, health care, education, shopping and socialization, he said.
Public transit might be part of the solution, but the pandemic has underscored that other pieces might be needed.
"We all agreed that in order to come out of this with a viable transportation system, we definitely need to consider all resources, both public and private," Coleman said.
"If we could solve this problem — boy, we'd be popular," Marcus said.
Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle's Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.