Studies note steep climb to improve rural transportation

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No car. No go. That's long been the deal for people in rural Western Massachusetts, where life is all but impossible without owning a vehicle.

When it comes to rural transportation, past looks like prologue, two recent studies suggest. Amid talk of renewed rail travel to and from the Berkshires, public transportation is thin or nonexistent outside urban centers.

And when "self-driving" cars come of age, expect rural regions to fall further behind, officials caution. Hundreds of country roads in Berkshire County will be off-limits to autonomous vehicles, unless telecommunications gaps are plugged and roads themselves improved.

"Absent some change in policy, the future of transportation in rural areas may look very similar to what exists today," the Berkshire County Selectmen's Association concluded in a recent report.

The association, which represents boards in 30 county towns, spelled out top transportation challenges in a December report to the Rural Policy Advisory Commission. That statewide group is preparing its own study, due this year, on ways to help small Massachusetts communities.

Separately, the group Rural Commonwealth recently issued a paper titled "Transportation in Massachusetts' Rural Core: What's missing?"

The new studies offer overlapping pleas for fresh approaches to rural transportation able to help people who, for whatever reason, can't drive themselves.

"Households without cars in rural areas need to be viewed as disadvantaged on the issue of transportation," the selectmen's group says.

Andrew Hogeland, of Williamstown, the association's president, said that when members of small-town boards talk shop, a common theme is the difficulty of simply getting around. It creates hurdles for economic development, beats up on school budgets and limits access to health care settings.

"Transportation cuts across a lot of problems," Hogeland said. "It runs into all the other challenges. It's worrisome to me about what the future of these towns are."

Hogeland, a Select Board member in his town, has been thinking a lot about transportation. He served on the statewide Commission on the Future of Transportation, which released a report in December.

Hogeland said he's hopeful that the rural plan coming from the state commission will provide an agenda for transportation improvements.

"And that would be a rallying point for everyone who cares about these issues," he said, "We can then say, `Let's go.' It's up to all of us now to carry that forward."

Both reports flag the importance of taking a fresh look at school transportation.

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Toby Gould, of Charlemont, co-founder of Rural Commonwealth, says people in his school area, the Mohawk Trail Regional School District, spend a lot of time pondering how to get students to a vocational school in Montague.

"They just about get mental hernias trying to solve this for one district," he said.

"This can mean a 40-seat school bus with one passenger a crushing expense for a town," Gould wrote in the Rural Commonwealth report. Some of those transportation costs could be lessened, he said, if students were able to attend closer vocational schools in other districts.

On school transit, the selectmen's group issues an even bigger challenge: Rethink how school buses are used — and not used.

"These are expensive assets, and they're not used for many hours in the middle of the day," Hogeland said.

Long trips to supermarkets are a rural fact of life, Gould's report notes. When small markets close, the rural "food desert" expands.

For older people, transportation strains independence.

"There is growing concern about the isolation of aging populations in these small towns," Gould writes. "The concept of aging in place is sold as the ideal for seniors, but how do these folks get around as driving becomes more difficult due to physical limitations?"

Both reports warn that until cellular telephone service reaches all rural areas, "driverless" cars will not do so either. The technology requires connectivity, in some cases among vehicles traveling a road together.

Hogeland said that as broadband access finally reaches rural areas, cell service should as well, so a different digital divide doesn't remain.

"The hope is, `Can we break that bad habit?'" he asked, referring to technological disparities between urban and rural areas. "At what point do you let investment decisions drive everything?"

Another challenge is the difficulty that self-driving vehicles are expected to have on roads without center or side markings or stripes. And yet many rural routes include dirt roads with no paint at all.

Gould said that progress might depend on whether rural needs get their due on Beacon Hill.

"Part of it is getting Boston to look out here," Gould said of rural Massachusetts. "These are people. And they have issues that need state support."

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


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