LENOX — With public transportation options in the Berkshires limited and local employers facing staffing shortages, a plan has emerged to create an on-demand microtransit service that would serve the residents of three south county towns.
The plan would set up a one-year pilot program for an on-demand transportation service for residents of all ages who live in Egremont, Great Barrington and Stockbridge.
Its principals have applied for a $93,500 grant from the Federal Transportation Administration through the town of Great Barrington to finance the program, and are seeking an additional $200,000 from a federal bond bill, according to state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox.
The program could start as soon as the beginning of next year “if all goes well,” said Tate Coleman, of Great Barrington, who helped develop the idea when he interned for the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission last summer.
Coleman, who recently graduated from Bard College at Simon’s Rock, used the proposal as his senior thesis. A self-described “public transit activist,” Coleman became Great Barrington’s representative to the regional transportation advisory committee for Southern Berkshire County three years ago when he was 14 years old.
A survey taken at the end of last year to gauge community interest in the project received 2,000 responses, “which is very good for our area,” Coleman said.
“We saw a lot of interest and after some meetings determined the Great Barrington, Egremont [and] Stockbridge zone as the area for a one-year pilot.”
Coleman outlined the plan for state Sen. Brendan Crighton, who heads the Joint Committee on Transportation, at Lenox Town Hall last week when he visited the Berkshires for a daylong tour of county transportation facilities. Coleman was joined by Pignatelli, state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, and Great Barrington Town Manager Mark Pruhenski.
Pignatelli, whose district includes the three towns that would utilize the service, said an on-demand ride service would provide a way for folks who live in rural areas like the Berkshires to get to and from work at times when public transportation services are not available.
“In our community we don’t have any Sunday service, so we have people who will have to walk a few miles to work,” Pignatelli told Creighton. “Housatonic to our Price Chopper plaza [n Great Barrington] is one that we’ve heard. That’s not a very nice walk, especially during the winter and when it’s raining.
“We know that employers are looking for staff, but the current transportation system is really not a nine-to-five operation. No weekends, no Sundays, no after-hours,” he said. “This on-demand ride service would be perfect because when you get out of work at 10 p.m., how do you get home?
“You see signs from Great Barrington to North Adams for good paying jobs. I think transportation is that disconnect for people.”
Coleman said an on-demand microtransit service was selected as the best option for this kind of service following an examination of the county’s existing public transportation resources.
“The idea behind shared ride on demand is that it comes when you want it to,” he said. “Since there’s no particular time for riding, it [the service] is not riding around wasting gas when it’s empty.
“Sort of like a shared-ride Uber is the best way to describe it for the general public.”
Such a service would be operated by either a municipality or a transit authority instead of a transit company, Coleman said. Passenger fares “would be something like $2.50 a ride,” he said. “If you happen to be lucky enough to get a Uber it’s going to cost you a lot more than that.”
To obtain vehicles for such a service, Coleman said the group has been looking at local council on aging organizations that already transport senior citizens in some Berkshires communities, to see if they have “additional capacity.”
“Often they have vehicles and drivers, so there’s structure already there,” he said.
But Pruhenski said finding enough vehicles and operators to drive them are challenges.
“I tried to buy an initial van for our existing transportation program, but can’t get it,” said Pruhenski, referring to a program in Great Barrington. “We’ve been in line for almost two years now. In Egremont, they’ve been waiting two-years-plus for a van for their transportation program ... If we could just find a car we would buy that.
“We have some vans that we can use now. But if this takes off that will be a key for us.”
Crighton’s stop in the Berkshires was his first on a statewide tour of state transportation facilities. He said he liked the idea and thought the concept would work well in the Berkshires.
Further development of the program requires a sense of urgency, Pignatelli said.
“There’s going to be an election in the next six months and transitional turnover so we want to position ourselves with the current administration so we can hit the ground running with the new administration,” he said. “Otherwise, it won’t be January of next year it will be January of the following year.
“I don’t think we have the time to lose for this.”