Steady funding key to future of Berkshire transit, official says

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PITTSFIELD — A call to lock in adequate funding for public transit could benefit Berkshires riders, the region's top transit official says.

On Friday, the state Department of Transportation will take comments in Amherst on a draft report commissioned by the Legislature last year. Lawmakers asked for the review as they brokered a deal to provide additional funding to groups like the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority to help avert service cutbacks.

Though no resident of the Berkshires sat on the study group, Robert Malnati, administrator of the BRTA, says the report released last week could relieve uncertainty about funding, if its ideas are adopted.

When asked what the report means to riders, Malnati said, "That they're talking about a stable funding amount so we can plan for the future." The authority carried 37,201 riders in January.

The draft urges the Legislature and executive branch to increase allocations to the state's 15 regional transit groups next year to $90.5 million, up from $88 million this year. That figure included $4 million for grants designed in part to spur innovation.

What's more, the report says such funding should be protected from inflation by building in automatic increases for public transit outside the Boston metro area.

Malnati, who was interviewed by the task force, calls that a crucial reform.

"You need to keep pace. If you are level-funded year to year, costs continue to rise," Malnati said. "You can't cut service to balance a budget and expect people to continue to use the service."

But the Baker administration does not support use of that hedge against inflation in its budget proposal for the 2020 fiscal year, setting up a Beacon Hill fight. Malnati notes that the $90.5 million figure is the amount the transit groups would receive next year, if an earlier commitment to factor in inflation had been upheld.

In Boston, funding for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority includes use of the inflation adjustments, Malnati said.

The Legislature's request for a study helped overcome objections from lawmakers who questioned whether regional transit authorities use taxpayer money wisely.

In response, the task force calls public transit crucial to the state's future, saying it provides a "lifeline" to millions who use bus and van service to get to work and stores.

"Unpredictable funding has limited efforts to improve innovation and modernization to meet 21st century demands," the report says, then goes on to lay out two dozen things that should be done to ensure the success of public transit.

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At the same time, the report calls for a new level of fiscal accountability by authorities like the BRTA, including agreements regarding performance targets, even as the outfits retain day-to-day operational control.

The task force urges regional transit groups to embrace innovation and find ways to help each other.

Doing a better job with public transit, the task force says, can boost the state economy, help employers build workforces, reduce road congestion, and address pollution and global warming. The task force was led by Astrid Glynn of the DOT.

Thomas Matuszko, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, said the group's support for automatic increases to cover inflation would, if heeded in the budget process, help assure riders that service can be sustained — and perhaps expanded.

"That way, it gives some predictability to the RTAs," he said, using the acronym for the regional transit authorities. "They should at least be on a status quo."

"Do I know if it is enough for RTAs to fully operate? I don't know that," he said.

In addition to backing from the state, the authorities need to expand other revenue sources, the report says, including money found locally and at the federal level.

The recommendations come three months after a larger report by the Governor's Commission on the Future of Transportation.

As the task force notes, that wider review underscored the importance of viable public transit provided by groups like the BRTA.

Glynn said in a statement that transit groups must innovate, including use of "microtransit" programs in rural areas.

Malnati said that in the Berkshires, that might involve greater use of on-demand services. Already, BRTA service in South County allows riders to call in and have buses pick them up away from established routes.

"We're trying to be innovative," Malnati said. "We do a lot of route deviations right now."

For instance, riders can obtain service to Federico Drive in east Pittsfield on demand, by calling the BRTA. The system enables riders to get to and from work sites there, without requiring service at times of low demand.

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


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