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Berkshire Worker Transit Service Looks To Expand

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An organization that provides transportation for low and middle income workers in northern Berkshire County is seeking state money to expand services and become self-sustaining.BerkshireRides currently provides 80 rides a day for people going to and from work in northern Berkshire County. Transporting roughly 6,000 people — 30 percent of North County’s employable population since 2002 — its service area has been Cheshire, Adams, Savoy, North Adams, Florida, Clarksburg and Williamstown. Having recently merged into the Berkshire Community Action Council, BerkshireRides is now looking to expand to the entire county. To do that, it is seeking a three-year $2.5 million state grant.

“It will go to sustain the services that BerkshireRides has in North County as they are and to begin to expand Central and South County,” said BerkshireRides project manager Jana Hunkler. “That we want to roll out in a few stages. So we’ll start with the large employment centers where there is a bigger congregation of employees and work on helping them get back and forth to work. Then we’ll expand the smaller towns and smaller employers.”

BerkshireRides is encouraging businesses in North County to reach out to the area’s legislative delegation to secure funding during upcoming budget negotiations. State Senator Ben Downing, a Democrat from Pittsfield, says there is no question limited public transportation is a growing barrier for economic advancement and a cap on the region’s employable population.

“I don’t think that there is a question of whether or not the county could use an infusion of cash on that level for transportation needs,” Downing said. “The question is, is that the best use of those resources over that time period?”

Downing says he and the rest of the legislative delegation are digging through studies to see what the best options are. The Berkshire Regional Transit Authority runs buses on main routes throughout the county from either 6 or 7 a.m. to roughly 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Contracting out to Tunnel City Transport, BerkshireRides transports second and third shift workers and fills the geographical gaps. Hunkler says the goal is to wean off government funding in three years by encouraging large employers to set up federal commuter tax credit programs for employees where money is withheld from their paychecks tax free to be used on public transit.

“Along with that our hope is that the employers will match it,” Hunkler said. “So we’ll have a base of steady money that’s coming from employers and employees.”

Hunkler says after Congressman John Olver retired and the 1st congressional district absorbed the entire Springfield metro area after the 2012 election, funding shifted from federal to state pocketbooks.

“Then the federal transportation bill stopped funding employment transportation for low to middle-income folks,” she said. “That program just went away.”

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation says Massachusetts faces a $1.5 billion budget shortfall. Republican Governor Charlie Baker has proposed incentives to encourage early retirement of an estimated 4,500 people in the executive branch to help close the gap. His full budget proposal is expected this week. Senator Downing says the Berkshire delegation is balancing other transportation needs like the regional transit authority and roads and bridges that have been shifted to town ownership and are in need of repair.

“So certainly the request from BerkshireRides is getting serious consideration from the delegation,” Downing said. “We’re trying to figure out what our priorities are while also trying to figure within what will be a tight budget this year what the Baker administration’s priorities are and where those overlap.”

At $2.50 a trip within its service area and $6 outside, Hunkler says BerkshireRides typically transports workers in the service, health care or manufacturing industries to places like Walmart, Williams College, Crane and Sweetwood retirement community. Prospects in South County include hotels and resorts like the Red Lion Inn.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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