Our Opinion: Explore regional bus initiative

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The public transportation needs of Berkshire County and Massachusetts are real, and so is the lack of adequate funding to address them. A funding initiative from recent years has re-emerged, and as was the case before, the concept has promise but raises questions.

With the Western Massachusetts state senator at the time, Benjamin Downing, a Pittsfield Democrat, in the lead, the state Senate three years ago passed legislation enabling communities to put transportation funding measures on the November, 2016 ballot. Pointing to a shortage of Berkshire Regional Transportation Authority buses on nights and weekends, the state senator argued that different regions should be able to address their different needs through regional busing initiatives (RBIs). The effort stalled in committee, however, as did a similar effort in 2018.

The RBI concept was discussed last week in Cambridge at a forum for business leaders concerned about transportation shortcomings in the state hosted by Biogen, the Cambridge-based biotechnology company (State House News Service). Though no longer in the state Senate, Mr. Downing gave a presentation on an issue that clearly remains important to him.

The forum testifies to the concerns the business community has about the state's antiquated transportation infrastructure. It could, and likely has, hindered business growth and made it more difficult to attract and keep good employees.The concerns are centered around the heavily populated and highly congested Boston region, but better bus and rail service will benefit current Berkshire businesses and enable the county to attract more of them.

The drawback to RBIs is that cities like Pittsfield, one of the Gateway Cities that the effort is designed to most benefit, don't have money to spare and it is difficult to imagine voters approving a referendum question that will cause them to pay for public transportation improvements, no matter how badly needed. There is also a danger that the state will see the RBIs as an excuse to cut transportation funding that is already inadequate.

On the other hand, with the costly Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, plagued by endless breakdowns, equipment upgrades and substantial bureaucracy, draining money from the entire state, including the Berkshires, the concept of a Boston RBI to pay a big chunk of the MBTA's cost has great appeal. This would ease the financial burden of sections of the state whose taxpayers don't ride the various train lines in and around Boston.

The RBI initiative may meet the same fate in 2020 that it did in 2016 and 2018, but this session should at least include a serious legislative debate that fleshes out the details of the proposal and considers its pros and cons. Any proposal that attempts to address our state's public transportation woes deserves at least that.

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