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Great Barrington Teen Explores Public Transit Overhaul

Josh Landes
Tate Coleman (L) presents his findings on the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority's South County service to the Great Barrington selectboard.

At last week’s Great Barrington, Massachusetts selectboard meeting, a teenager offered a new vision of public transit.

Tate Coleman, 14, describes himself as a public transit activist. A student at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, he says he’s been working with selectboard member Bill Cook for the past few months on local transportation issues. Coleman says his project examining the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority’s service to South County will produce two proposals.

“One that would increase coverage, and one that would provide increased service to the current corridor,” said Coleman.

The proposals will share some common goals.

“They will include decreased travel times, increased service in more dense corridors, and increased hours of operation,” he told the selectboard.

Coleman compared the BRTA’s service to the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority in Colorado, a similarly sized area with a strong tourist economy.

“The RFTA’s annual ridership was 1.4 million in 1984, similar to the BRTA’s ridership at the time," said Coleman. "While BRTA took a steep decline in ridership partially due to a decrease in population and routes not changing to meet customer needs at a fast enough pace, the RFTA in Colorado took a hard look at its long term transportation goals.”

Coleman says the RFTA increased its ridership by 85 percent between 1990 and 1995 by expanding service across the region and partnering with private resorts to act as a shuttle service.

“I was particularly interested when the RFTA launched the first rural bus rapid transit line in America, servicing the full 70 miles," he said. "This line runs frequently, all day, seven days a week. It was been a major success, boosting ridership and decreasing automobile usage through the region.”

While Coleman acknowledges the differences between the two communities, he feels that the BRTA could learn a lot from the RFTA’s long look in the mirror. Not only has its South County ridership dropped significantly since 2015, those numbers are far below national averages. Coleman said it can take up to two hours to get the 20 or so miles from Great Barrington to Pittsfield.

“Currently, there is inadequate advertising," said the teen. "Visitors, residents, students, and prospective employees have little to no means to know or learn about the bus systems. There’s little signage – only some in Great Barrington since July 2018, which is a great start.”

Ideas for improvements range from installing bus shelters to redesigning routes to suit the needs of contemporary life in the Berkshires.

“We will then reinvest increased revenue from ridership gains into service enhancement, and we are also looking to provide fully accessible, more frequent, and predictable service,” he told the selectboard.

Coleman says reallocating resources would avoid budget increases for the BRTA.

One of his ideas is for a Great Barrington circulator bus that would travel the area without fixed stops.

“Greater opportunity for additional deviations to get people exactly where they need to go and not within three-quarters of a mile, for example,” said Coleman.

Another is a bus rapid transit line.

“Providing frequent, direct service throughout the day from Pittsfield to Great Barrington servicing towns in-between as well," he continued. "If distinctly branded with passenger magnets such as Wi-Fi, it has the potential to become a line serving residents and visitors of all socio-economic classes.”

The BRTA is aware of Coleman’s efforts.

“The more people that are involved and the more people that have opinions about public transportation, I think that’s great," said BRTA administrator Robert Malnati. He says any conclusions Coleman comes to will have to be thoroughly vetted.

“We still have to do a process similar to what he is conducting – have to have public comment, we have to have public input, then again, the board has to vote on any new service,” explained Malnati.

Coleman is collecting public feedback on his proposed changes to the BRTA system through a survey you can take here. You can also see his full report on public bus service in South County here, and visit the project's website here.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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