The Berkshire County economic development organization tasked with developing the Berkshire Flyer train project that would connect the region to New York City has begun its work.
The subcommittee of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission met in downtown Pittsfield, Massachusetts Monday to hear about comparative transit projects in other parts of the Northeast: namely, the Ethan Allen Express and the Amtrak Downeaster.
“They cater the same area, the tourist attractions like Berkshire County. The Ethan Allen connects New York to Rutland, Vermont, and the Amtrak Downeaster connects Boston to Portland, Maine, and further to Freeport, Maine. Freeport, Maine does have a tourist attraction like Berkshire County," said Anuja Koirala, Senior Transportation Planner for the BRPC. “We are looking to how many riders actually take the train, what kind of services they provide, and for the last mile when they get out of the train, what are the options they have to get to the next destination in the area.”
“The seamless nature of it, so there isn’t a lot of uncertainty — it’s one of the worst things as a traveler, when you get to a place maybe you haven’t come before, then you have to figure out how to come to your final destination — making it as easy as possible," said BRPC executive director Thomas Matuszko, a 20-plus year veteran of the office and only the third person to hold its top leadership position since it was founded in 1966. Elected in February, he took charge in late May.
“Our weakness is that we don’t have a very robust mass transit system," he told WAMC. "We have our bus system in Berkshire County, but it certainly is not the same as a mass transit city and a larger city, say, Boston or something like that.”
The Berkshire Regional Transit Authority’s schedule ends at 7:20 p.m. on weekdays, 7 p.m. on Saturdays, and doesn’t run Sundays. In lieu of a more comprehensive mass transit system, the BRPC has identified other means of navigating the county, from luxury car services and taxis to ride-hailing companies like Uber and private transport specific to hotels and resorts.
“Well, I think we learned today that we have a lot more existing providers than maybe we knew about," said Matuszko. “I think the other thing that’s a strength in Berkshire County, is the sense of entrepreneurialship, that there are people willing to adapt to the new conditions. So I think if we — as we found out in our initial research, if we have a provider who already has some service, he’s willing to adapt to our schedule here, so that’s another strength.”
“Are there other audiences that would be coming here if there were a train?" asked Democratic State Senator Adam Hinds, who helped secure $100,000 in funding for the Berkshire Flyer program in this year’s state budget and has been an outspoken proponent of the project. “And so I think there’s an interesting niche here, and some of it might be pointing towards outdoor recreation rather than cultural, and a number of items like that. Different age groups, different income levels.”
The BRPC says some of its research has identified a new demographic of visitors that the Berkshire Flyer could attract.
“It could bring the new people who haven’t been to the Berkshires because they don’t drive," said Koirala. “Right now, most of the options, it’s like 90 percent of the people use the automobile to come over here, and 6 percent rent a car, so it will cater to that population — who live in Manhattan, they don’t have a driver’s license, they don’t drive — so they can take a train and come to the Berkshires. So if you provide the last mile connection, and the connection within Berkshire County, they’ll be willing to come. From one mouth to another, there will be more people knowing about the service, and more and more we’ll get people coming to the Berkshires.”
The BRPC’s planning will continue through next spring. The goal is for the Berkshire Flyer to begin regular service in summer 2020.