Our Opinion: East's traffic issues can work for county
A state Department of Transportation report on the status of Massachusetts roadways has set off alarm bells in Boston and vicinity. The report should trigger bells in the Berkshires, too, heralding an opportunity.
The report released Thursday, the first such analysis in six years, found that traffic congestion has increased dramatically since 2013, reaching a "tipping point" where many routes are unreliable and delays extend well beyond traditional rush hours. While this is not exactly surprising, the graphic data presented in the report sent the Baker administration scrambling to come up with solutions that can be enacted within three to four years.
It is also not surprising that the report focused largely on Boston and the communities within the Route 95/128 belt, where traffic congestion is the greatest. Berkshire residents can be grateful that the county played a small role in the report, but there were findings and conclusions ithat offer encouragement for the county as it seeks to attract businesses and residents.
The report found that when traffic is congested (average travel times are up to twice as long as during free-flow conditions, according to DOT parameters) in Western Mass. it is usually at 1, 4 or 5 p.m. and covers only 10 percent of roads in the region. For comparison, 66 percent of roads in the greater Boston area are congested at 5 p.m. The report noted that the Massachusetts Turnpike from Exit 1 in West Stockbridge to the New York border is heavily congested (travel times are more than twice as long as during free-flow conditions) from 3 to 6 p.m., but this has no real impact on Berkshire drivers. More significantly, the report described traffic on Route 7 from Sheffield to Great Barrington as congested from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The report warned that increased travel times for commuters caused by traffic congestion threatens job growth and the economy inside the 95/128 belt. In contrast, the relative lack of congestion in the Berkshires is a selling point to businesses and employees looking at regions where frustrating drives to and from work won't consume a big chunk of their day.
The DOT report recommended that the state "Encourage growth in less congested gateway cities," and went on to mention several of them in the eastern end of the state outside the 95/128 belt. We would note that Pittsfield is a state-designated gateway city as well, and while traffic can back up occasionally at traffic lights, the DOT report did not cite the city as a problem area. The same can be said of North Adams. The report advocated expanded mass transit, which is an argument for more resources for the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority and an improved Pittsfield to Boston rail link. The DOT also recommended that gateway cities develop affordable housing to further attract businesses seeking to escape congested travel areas.
As far as the one Berkshire trouble spot noted in the report, Great Barrington has essentially become a victim of its own success in building a bustling downtown served by a busy state road. The DOT mentioned the high number of retail stores between Great Barrington and Sheffield and perhaps the state, as part of its response to the report, could explore ways to improve access to and from these retailers with an eye toward relieving traffic backups.
Berkshire County is not an homogeneous area, but in general it offers reasons for businesses and employees to come here, such as low housing costs and a lower cost of living than in Boston and vicinity,. The county offers good schools, aesthetic beauty and cultural and recreational activities. And roads that don't drive drivers to distraction at rush hour. The DOT report offers a road map for Berkshire political and business leaders to follow in attracting businesses frustrated by traffic congestion to the state's far west. We encourage them to run with it.
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