BRTA at a crossroads

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In the recent past, Shepard, who has been the agency's leader since February, referred to the increased ridership and rising fuel costs as a "double-edged sword" — a description used by many of his colleagues in regional transit.

"I look at it as more than that," he said. "For the first time in over 60 years, we have a public that is seriously considering public transit. But if we don't respond properly, they'll never look to us again."

This moment of reckoning is surrounded by two issues being looked at by the agency: a 14 percent increase to $1.25 for a full fare, and a route analysis aimed at adding more buses, more pick-up points and more flexible service in terms of time and routes.

The fare increase could go into effect as early as September if it is approved by the BRTA's advisory board this month, but it would only slightly offset the agency's fiscal 2009 diesel fuel budget, Shepard said.

The route analysis, which will be conducted over the next year by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, will be used to make the system, which covers 23 of the 32 communities in the county, more efficient and better geared toward the needs of a county that has changed since the BRTA was formed 24 years ago.

In most cases, the 21 buses in the BRTA fleet run every hour, and Shepard said that frequency probably isn't high enough.

"For people to wait every hour for a bus, that's not as user-friendly as we could be," he said.

Tough market

Shepard acknowledged that mass transit is a tough sell in a remote, largely rural county where many motorists look at a bus commute as a punishment or a major inconvenience.

The opposite, of course, is true in the major cities near the Berkshires. The users of Boston's Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, for example, are mostly white-collar workers, Shepard said, while the BRTA primarily serves a blue-collar, economically disadvantaged population.

Still, there is no question that Berkshire County residents are changing their views, getting onto the bus more often.

In the past fiscal year, which began at the end of June 2007 and ended 12 days ago, 496,277 rides were taken on the BRTA, an increase of 1.4 percent from the previous year. The numbers greatly increased at the beginning of 2008, when gas prices began their climb, Shepard said.

In February 2007 and February 2008, rides increased from 34,212 to 39,518, a rise of 15.5 percent. That has been the highest increase in ridership since the beginning of 2008.

Shepard attributed some of the increase to inclement winter weather, and some to a mounting sticker shock at the pump.

"It got overwhelming for people," he said.

In February 2007, a gallon of gas cost about $2.20; in February 2008, the price was $3.08. Now it's more than $4, and those car trips around town, or around the county, have become more of a burden to the wallet.

"People are just leaving their cars at home more," said Dave Tucker, a BRTA driver who has been with the agency for 10 years.

'It's the gas prices'

Eight BRTA riders took part Wednesday in a public hearing on the proposed fare increase. Of the eight riders, three were in wheelchairs.

One such rider said she understood the need for an increase, but accepted it only grudgingly.

"It's the gas prices, we understand that," said Cynthia Betters of Pittsfield. "And there's nothing we can do about it."

A current BRTA one-way regular fare is $1.10 per community, or zone; seniors pay 55 cents. A trip from Cheshire into Lanesborough, the next town over, would be $2.20. The maximum one-way fare is $4.40, which is what a rider would pay for a trip from Pittsfield to Great Barrington, or from Great Barrington to North Adams, for example.

If the rate increase goes through, the full fare rate for a single zone will be $1.25, and physically disabled passengers, such as Betters, who use the BRTA paratransit service will pay $2.50 instead of $2.20.

Maximum one-way fares for the two groups would change to $5 and $10, respectively.

The fare increase would be the BRTA's first since 2005.

Branching out

The bus to Lee, with connections to Stockbridge and Great Barrington, pulled into its bay at the Intermodal Transportation Center in Pittsfield at 9 a.m., right on time.

Five minutes later, the bus pulled away with 12 people on board. Many riders greeted the driver, Buddy Fish, a 17-year BRTA veteran, by name.

One passenger sat near the front of the bus with a grim smile. He was heading to a garage in Stockbridge to pick up his car; he's from Eastern Massachusetts. He had a seizure behind the wheel the night before, and he cracked up his car.

More passengers boarded the bus on Main Street in Lee. Among them was Butch Rollinger, 54, an employee at the Price Chopper supermarket in Great Barrington. He takes the bus to work about three times a week.

Rollinger and his wife, Geraldine, share a car, and she takes the car to work.

"I don't mind at all," Rollinger said. "The bus has great service."

The BRTA wants the non-riding population to share Rollinger's sentiments. In its route analysis — the agency's first in more than a decade — the BRTA plans to alter the bus lines to better suit riders and non-riders alike.

Shepard said he has been riding the BRTA's buses since he took over for Charles M. MacNeil as the agency's administrator last winter, and he has noticed a few outdated passages.

On one line, which travels from Allendale to North Adams on Route 8, Shepard discovered that the bus route bypassed the main commercial center of Adams.

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Shepard, an Adams native and a 1972 graduate of Hoosac Valley Regional High School, said he was perplexed by the roundabout route.

As it turned out, it was going to a place that no longer existed.

"When I looked at the corner of Summer and Hoosac Streets, there was a vacant lot," he said. "And then it dawned on me. Over a decade ago, there was a building there that used to house the welfare department."

Similar problems arose, he said, on the Pittsfield-Lenox-Lee route, which goes through Lenox Dale to the Prime Outlets in Lee. In doing so, Shepard said, the line bypassed at least two major employers: Canyon Ranch on Kemble Street, and Cranwell Resort on Route 20.

"Well over a decade ago, there wasn't really a Canyon Ranch," Shepard said. "Now it employs 750 people. Lenox Dale might have made sense in the past, but we have to rethink that."

Shepard also mentioned the town of Hancock, which isn't one of the communities served by the BRTA. The town is the home of Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort, a four-season sports attraction and a major employer in the county. The resort has 300 people on its summer payroll; in the winter, that number rises to 950 during ski and snowboard season.

Jiminy Peak CEO Brian Fairbank said the resort's human resources department will ask its employees in the county whether they would consider taking the bus. About 270 were on the payroll last winter, with the greatest concentrations living in Pittsfield and North Adams.

"If there are (employees) who would use the service, then it has merit," Fairbank said. "But we would want to know if there's a willingness to use the bus beyond just winter."

Fairbank said that about eight years ago, Jiminy Peak and the BRTA tried to offer bus service from Pittsfield's Park Square to the mountain, but the response was "dismal."

"But that was then, and this is now," he said.

Closer to home

Standing in his office at the Joseph R. Scelsi Intermodal Transportation Center — a triangular, 5-year-old building that fans out in the delta between North Street and Columbus Avenue — Shepard takes a sheet of note paper and draws a straight line: the simple point A to B that is the algebra of every bus route.

The arrival and departure times of A and B are fixed, but, as Shepard draws a zig zag through the line, he wants to know if it's possible to deviate off the route and pick up riders closer to their homes — or closer to their jobs — at times tailored to their needs.

What if, he asked, there was a park-and-ride system connected to a major employer such as Berkshire Medical Center, and, if a rider had an emergency situation where their child gets sick, a BRTA vehicle would be available to quickly get that employee back to their car?

"I think the BRTA is an important cog in the economic engine," Shepard said. "We add to the income tax when we take someone to work. When we take someone to the mall and they buy something, we add to the sales tax. Two major employment barriers for mothers on welfare are access to child care and transportation. We help with both."

Ridership snapshot

Starting in the fall, Shepard said, riders will be given questionnaires, asking how often they use the bus, the maximum bus fare they would find acceptable, if they own a car, and how often they use the service.

The questionnaire, which is being drafted by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, will serve as a snapshot of the ridership, said Alison Church, the planning agency's transportation program manager.

Church said the questionnaires will be distributed and collected by the bus drivers. She added that non-riders in the community also will be surveyed by the BRTA's advisory board, and they'll be asked if there is a cost of gasoline high enough that would make them reconsider public transit.

What that cost is, Church said, is the "million-dollar question."

The BRTA analysis will continue through March, but the time line for changing routes and times remains nebulous, and is dependent, to a degree, on the results of the study.

"We do have state and federal money for planning," Shepard said. "But implementation is another thing. If we show increased ridership, we have a case to make (for more funding)."

The agency has a locked-in fuel price of $1.94 until the end of this month. At that point, the BRTA will pay market price — about $4 per gallon. The spike in gas prices has almost doubled the BRTA's fuel budget, which is $616,000 for fiscal 2009. In the current fiscal year, the fuel budget is $325,000.

Of the BRTA's 21 buses, four are mini-buses with 14 seats, 10 are 29-footers that seat 27 passengers, three are 35-footers that seat 35 passengers, and four are 35-footers that seat 32 passengers. One of the latter is a hybrid.

Shepard said the BRTA has reduced its yearly gas consumption from 168,000 gallons to 154,000 gallons by using the mini-buses for some routes, and he wants to purchase mid-sized, 20-seat buses to add to the fleet.

Gas prices would not affect the number of routes offered, Shepard said, adding: "This is no time to raise fares and cut service (at the same time)."

'Everyone pulls together'

The bus stopped at the Prime Outlets, and the transfer bus to Great Barrington was waiting by the curb. Four passengers climbed aboard, and the mini-bus continued on Route 102. At the intersection of Route 7 in Stockbridge, the bus stopped to let out the man who had a seizure and was in a car accident.

He climbed down the steps tentatively, and then turned to look at the remaining passengers.

"Bye, everybody," he said.

"Bye," everyone called in unison.

Dave Tucker, who has been driving the same route for two years, said there's a camaraderie on the bus that doesn't exist in a car.

"Everyone pulls together," he said.

Tucker has gotten to know his passengers — "who to joke with, who to leave alone" — and he sees the same faces, at the same stops, every day.

"The people I pick up on Monday will be waiting for me on Tuesday," he said. "You can count on that."

To reach Jessica Willis: jwillis@berkshireeagle.com, (413) 528-3660.


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