Quest for seat on transit panel comes up short for Berkshires

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PITTSFIELD — Officials from 30 Berkshire County towns made their pitch. So did the leader of the region's planning commission: When a task force ponders money problems with regional transit authorities, please give them a seat.

It didn't happen. Nineteen people now serve with a group commissioned in July by the Legislature. As a condition of additional funding this year, lawmakers ordered a study of ways to improve how 15 transit authorities operate. None of those on the new panel are from Berkshire County.

In letters to Gov. Charlie Baker, officials with both the Berkshire County Selectmen's Association and the Berkshire County Planning Commission argued that regional transit needs are unique to a big rural area.

Michael Case, president of the municipal group, put it this way in a Sept. 18 letter to Baker: "The needs and challenges facing [regional transit authorities] are different across the Commonwealth. We believe the recommendations of the Task Force will be more useful and appropriate for rural areas if at least one of the appointed members is from the Berkshires and familiar with its significant rural public transportation challenges."

"We should be wary of assuming that one set of measures and standards would be appropriate," Case wrote. "For example, wait times between buses that are typical in the Berkshires would likely not be tolerated in an urban service area."

Thomas Matuszko, the planning commission's executive director, told Baker, in his own Aug. 15 message, that the Berkshires present "unique transportation challenges which are distinctly different than those in the more urbanized areas to the east."

Reforms in transit systems in eastern Massachusetts may not work in the Berkshires, he suggested.

"Our situation needs to be considered," Matuszko said in an interview last month, noting the county's large size and relatively sparse settlement outside two cities. "It's very challenging to accommodate a fixed-route system."

Baker looked west for at least one of his appointees to the panel — but only as far as the Pioneer Valley. He named Sandra Sheehan, administrator of the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority based in Springfield.

Sarah Finlaw, deputy communications director for Baker, said the governor will keep the whole state in mind.

"The task force will review the operational needs of regional transit authorities to help improve service for communities across the Commonwealth," Finlaw said by email in response to questions. "Gov. Baker looks forward to reviewing the task force's recommendations to address the transit needs of all regions."

Baker wasn't the only one who opted not to bring a Berkshire voice onto the panel. Leaders of the House and Senate also picked people for the project.

But the governor named 11 of the 19 members of the panel.

Panel's mission

The task force met Oct. 11 at DOT headquarters in Boston. The group is expected to identify "operating standards and best practices" for the state's regional transit authorities, some of which routinely run deficits and face service cutbacks. This year's state budget bill required the task force to report by Nov. 1.

A section of the budget bill said the task force must consider the following:

- How regional transit authorities can "best provide and improve transit services that meet identified community needs."

- How they can plan operations that serve diverse populations and "different geographic regions ... that maximizes ridership using available resources."

- And, on the money front, how they can see to it that "fares, local contributions and other own-source revenues cover an appropriate share of service costs."

According to the budget bill, the task force's recommendations must be used by the authorities and DOT "to develop authority-specific memoranda of understanding."

Rough translation for regional transit officials: Don't come back to the Legislature for a bailout if you haven't adopted the task force's advice.

The following people sit on the panel:

Sen. Harriette Chandler; state Reps. Hannah Kane and Sarah Peake; Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera; Gloucester Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken; Gloucester City Council President Paul Lundberg; and MassDOT Rail and Transit Administrator Astrid Glynn, who serves as its chairwoman.

Also, in addition to Sheehan, the following transit authority administrators: Angela Grant (Martha's Vineyard), Erik Rousseau (Southeastern), Ray Ledoux (Brockton), Edward Carr (MetroWest), Thomas Cahir (Cape Cod).

Others members: Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority Senior Director of Service Planning Melissa Dullea; Middlesex 3 Coalition Executive Director Stephanie Cronin; Lowell Regional Transit Authority Rider Representative Franny Osman; Brockton Area Transit Authority Disabled Rider Representative Catherine Kablish; Lynn Ahlgren, Ahlgren Consulting; and Gail Farnsworth-French, Quaboag Valley Community Development Corp.

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


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