Our Opinion: Give Berkshires a seat at transportation table

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The most succinct characterization of the commonwealth's newly formed transit task force lies in a paraphrase of a country-western song: "Eastern Massachusetts got the goldmine, and the Berkshires got the shaft."

In its most recent session, the Legislature voted additional funds for the state's 15 regional transit authorities with the condition that a task force be convened to consider management, standards, policies and implementation to ensure that the money be efficiently spent.

Somehow, out of 19 available seats on that task force (of which Gov. Charlie Baker chose 11), no one felt compelled to reserve one for a representative from a county whose rural nature and large geographic distances make its needs and expectations unique among those 15 regional authorities. To add insult to injury, the Worcester area, Cape Cod, Gloucester and Brockton each have two representatives. Even Martha's Vineyard, an island barely 10 miles wide with a year-round population of 15,000, was given a seat. One member was appointed from the Pioneer Valley — which was as far west as politicians on Beacon Hill were capable of casting their gaze.

As anyone who depends on the BRTA to get around knows, the Berkshires offer major transportation challenges for those without a car. Those who must juggle limited funds to maintain countywide bus service on a wing and a prayer might be forgiven for considering the snub a deliberate slap — after all, Berkshire County sends over $40 million annually to Boston in sales taxes earmarked specifically for transportation, much of which gets sucked into the insatiable maw of the problem-plagued MBTA.

More important than wounded pride, however, is the fact that in the usual parochial scramble for state funds, those without a seat at the table will be lucky even to get crumbs. As Thomas Matuszko, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission wrote the governor in a letter pleading for county representation on the task force, "[Berkshire County] has unique transportation challenges which are distinctly different than those in the more urbanized areas to the east." Since a representative from Brockton or Lowell (also represented) cannot be expected to conceive of a large area containing two small-size cities and peppered with sparsely populated mountain hamlets that also require service, Berkshire County stands to be deprived of specialized funding it might need as well as subjected to requirements and restrictions unsuited to its situation.

Unlike more densely populated areas, Berkshires workers have relatively few choices on how to get to and from work. The distances are too great for walking or bike riding; even carpooling can be difficult if not impossible. Therefore, effective public transportation is more necessary, while at the same time distances and a dearth of riders render such effectiveness harder to achieve. The absence of anyone on this critical task force to look out for the county's unique interests will make it even harder for it to shed its status as the commonwealth's economic weak sister. This snub not only harms Berkshire County, it's also counterproductive to the overall health of Massachusetts — whose western border, for anyone interested, is not defined by the Connecticut River.


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