Planners ask: What needs fixing in Berkshires transportation?

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PITTSFIELD — Word about getting around in the Berkshires is, well, getting around.

More than 4,000 postcards will be mailed this week asking residents of Berkshire County, particularly those who live in economically distressed neighborhoods, to comment on ways to improve transportation in the region.

Already, 400 people have contributed answers through an online survey created by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

The results will guide how federal money is used to improve the transportation system, whether it's road and bridge repair, boosts to fixed-route public transit or alternative travel through biking and ride-sharing.

"We consistently hear how important this issue of transportation is," said Thomas Matuszko, the commission's executive director.

One given, he said, is that problems abound. They include gaps in fixed-route transit schedules and nonexistent options for elderly residents who no longer drive.

Every four years, planners in Pittsfield update what's called the Regional Transportation Plan, a document that addresses all of the ways people move around Berkshire County.

Because that's mainly in cars and trucks, research for the new plan is soliciting comment from people who travel the county's roads. That's an effort to "crowd source" the project, pulling intel from people most familiar with road and bridge conditions.

"We're really not building new roads in the Berkshires," said Eammon Coughlin, the commission's senior transportation planner. "It's really about trying to preserve and maintain what we have."

But increasingly, new transportation projects are taking a more inclusive approach to publicly financed repairs.

The national Complete Streets movement, for example, believes roads should accommodate all kinds of uses, including people on foot and astride bicycles. The philosophy pushes back on decades of car-centric designs. "Complete Streets" is embraced by the state Department of Transportation and is already in play in cities and towns throughout Berkshire County.

"People are looking for more options," Coughlin said.

The commission's survey includes questions that tease out views on alternative modes of travel. But it also asks for comment on the shape of roads that provide the primary means of getting people to and from work in a rural area.

"We still are very dependent on cars and trucks," Matuszko said.

The plan looks ahead to transportation needs over the coming 20 years. It will be dated 2020; the current plan came out in 2016. The documents guide decisions about which transportation projects make it onto a rolling list of actual construction efforts — and when.

Coughlin said he hopes the postcard blast will result in a surge of survey responses. The cards include a code that, when photographed on a smartphone, take users to a mobile version of the SurveyMonkey questions. People can also ask to receive a paper copy of the survey to fill out by hand.

The survey takes about 10 minutes to complete. Participants are asked to rate the quality and value of the transportation systems they use. But they are also queried on their values, in questions that delve into environmental and economic justice matters.

While Coughlin hopes to amass 1,000 survey responses, that's not the only way people can be heard.

The commission will hold a public briefing at 5 p.m. Oct. 17 at the Berkshire Athenaeum auditorium in Pittsfield.

Coughlin said he hopes that night to be able to provide early takeaways from responses received so far. The online survey will remain active through the end of October.

For Coughlin, the stakes are clear. "A safe and efficient transportation system is critical to our local economy and quality of life," he said.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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