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Berkshire Lawmakers Want More Transportation Talk From Baker

A white man in a suit stands in front of a bookshelf.

Berkshire lawmakers are reacting to Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s State of the Commonwealth address Tuesday.

“Mister Speaker. Madame President. Members of the House and Senate. Congressman Neal. Mayor Walsh. Ambassador Flynn. Thank you very much for being with us tonight,” said the governor.

The second-term Republican made his remarks on Beacon Hill before legislators and dignitaries. Baker presented a glowing review of life in Massachusetts under his leadership.

“Our economy is booming, our unemployment rate is below 3%, and we have more people working than any time in our history," said the governor. "Strong fiscal management and a robust economy have resulted in back-to-back billion dollar budget surpluses, which we collectively used to double down on our rainy day fund. Today, that fund balance stands at $3.5 billion – its highest level ever by a large margin. Congratulations!”

Baker touched on a topic many in Western Massachusetts were eager to hear about: transportation.

“We filed an $18 billion transportation bond bill last year, the largest ever," he said. "$11 billion will be invested in road and bridge improvements, with another $7 billion for additional expansion and modernization of transit, commuter rail, and bus service. Our 2021 budget proposal will include an increase of $135 million in operating funds for the T.”

One veteran Berkshire legislator was there for his 18th consecutive State of the Commonwealth – Democratic 4th Berkshire District state Representative Smitty Pignatelli.

“I was very excited about this very aggressive plan on roads and bridges and culverts – that will have a very positive affect and impact on Western Massachusetts," Pignatelli told WAMC. "But I believe he spent way too much time talking about the MBTA in Boston without talking about public transit in the rest of the state, which is a serious problem in the Berkshires as you know as well.”

Fellow Democratic Representative Paul Mark of the 2nd Berkshire district was also disappointed about that.

“I didn’t hear a word about the Valley Flyer, I didn’t hear a word about the upcoming Berkshire Flyer, I didn’t hear anything about east-west rail – nothing like that," said Mark. "So that’s an area where as legislators, we’re going to have to try to make sure that we’re having the voices of the people we represent heard, instead of just the Boston focus – which is normal, I think, for just about any governor.”

Democratic State Senator Adam Hinds of the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden District, the chief champion of the Berkshire Flyer project, also expressed disappointment – but said he was heartened by Baker’s plans to reduce carbon emissions.

“Going to net zero by 2050, committing the state to that – in the Senate, in fact, later this week we’ll be releasing an omnibus climate bill that will include the same, so we seem to be on the same page, and that is very encouraging,” said Hinds.

Both Mark and Hinds say they also wanted to hear Baker address more about higher ed in the state.

When it comes to funding new transportation spending, Pignatelli says that there has been talk of a gas tax. He says he’s long been an advocate for a local version of the tax that would keep all of its proceeds within the community generating it.

“The MBTA is serious, but when you think about the one penny on the sales tax current goes direct to the MBTA and they’re still a disaster," said Pignatelli. "That means about $30 million to $35 million of the sales tax generated in Berkshire County goes directly to the MBTA, so I’ve been advocating for – and Representative Barrett especially – let us keep that money! Let us keep it locally. We can solve a lot of our transportation issues if we’re allowed to keep the money we generate ourselves.”

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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