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BRTA funding threatened: Fare increases, route cuts are possibilities

Great Barrington Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin suggested better marketing targeted toward students and perhaps the many senior centers across the county. In addition, she wondered why the so-called CharlieCards, the BRTA's cashless payment system, were not available for purchase at places like supermarkets and pharmacies.

Great Barrington — If you depend on the bus fleet of the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority to get around, you might want to brace for the worst.

If state funding isn’t restored in Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget proposal before lawmakers on Beacon Hill, the BRTA will face an operating deficit of $378,400, on a little more than $2.5 million in funding from the state. If funding stays flat, the only short-term cures would be cuts in service, increases in fares or some combination of the two.

Bob Malnati, the BRTA administrator, has, for the last few weeks, been making the rounds in the county in an effort to let riders and others know the impact on the BRTA of Baker’s budget proposal. On Tuesday, he was in the Great Barrington firehouse.

About 20 people watched Malnati run through a PowerPoint presentation that crunched the numbers and spelled out in black and white the possibilities of coping with the shortfall. Click here to view his presentation.

“We’re here today because we need to balance our budget,” Malnati said of the projected deficit. “We have put some assumptions into our budget and we are trying to figure out how to deal with that.”

Baker’s budget proposal recommends an appropriation of $80.4 million for the state’s 15 regional transit authorities. To give you an idea of where Berkshire County ranks in the funding food chain, the $2.5 million that BRTA receives from the state is 3.11 percent of the total that it gives to regional transit authorities in Massachusetts.

Yes, Berkshire County has the second smallest population in the state (behind Franklin) but it’s also the second largest geographically (behind Worcester). The low population density and poor economies of scale make public transportation much more expensive in the Berkshires than in, say, the eastern part of the state.

At the Great Barrington firehouse on April 24, Berkshire Regional Transit Authority administrator Bob Malnati explains his organization’s plight amid the possibility of continued flat funding from the state. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Malnati said a variety of options are on the table, including the elimination of routes and the raising of fares — even the elimination of Saturday service (there currently is no service on Sundays and on nine major holidays throughout the year). Click here and scroll down to page 5 to see the possible rate increases and reductions/eliminations of service.

Malnati said the problem with a flat budget — or even budgets with small increases — is that costs refuse to remain fixed. Labor costs are rising and are sure to rise even more, as negotiations with the labor union that represents transit workers are ongoing. Health insurance premiums for those workers continue their inexorable march upward, as they are doing across the country. In addition, collision and liability insurance rates for the BRTA vehicle fleet are not getting any cheaper.

Baker’s budget proposal of $80.4 million for the RTA systems is almost identical to what the allocation was in 2014. Meanwhile, the RTAs think their funding should be $88 million. RTAs have seen flat or reduced funding from the state for four years running.

Other RTAs are struggling with the lack of funding, as well. Malnati pointed to RTAs in Franklin and Worcester counties, as well as those in the Merrimack and Pioneer valleys. Worcester is looking at a deficit of $900,000, while the PVRTA, which serves five colleges and universities, anticipates a shortfall of a staggering $3.1 million.

Great Barrington town manager Jennifer Tabakin was at Malnati’s session in the firehouse and suggested a concerted effort on the part of BRTA to increase ridership.

Great Barrington town manager Jennifer Tabakin, who previously worked for the administration of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York City, suggested ways for the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority to increase ridership. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“How many more passengers would you need to have in order to make up this deficit?” Tabakin asked. Malnati did not have a precise number for her, citing a variety of factors that could determine how many.

Tabakin also suggested better marketing targeted toward students and perhaps the many senior centers across the county. In addition, she wondered why the so-called CharlieCards, the BRTA’s cashless payment system, were not available for purchase at places like supermarkets and pharmacies.

Malnati said the cards have to be activated using BRTA equipment, which would make it difficult, but perhaps not impossible, to be sold by a third party. Malnati also insisted his organization performs lots of community outreach in an effort to ensure that BRTA’s message gets out.

“I’m just suggesting creative ways to look at things,” Tabakin said.

Laura Berliner, director of visitor experience at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, echoed Tabakin. She is convinced there is room for the BRTA to grow and suggested more aggressive marketing to the tourism sector.

“We see over 130,000 annually and that bus has been huge for us—to be able to call them and have them come and pick up visitors and take them to Stockbridge or the Outlets,” Berliner said. “The thing is, nobody knows about the bus service so it’s kind of like this hidden gem that nobody really knows about.”

Others asked about whether BRTA could increase ridership by helping with the busing of students to schools. But Malnati said state law currently prohibits the placement of public transportation stops on school district property.

Housatonic resident Michelle Loubert weighs in on the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority. Behind her are, from left, Selectman Bill Cooke, Tate Coleman and Laura Berliner. Photo: Terry Cowgill

And there is perhaps another untapped sector of the market that could be a target of marketing: young people. Tate Coleman, an eighth-grader at the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School, is a regular rider of the BRTA—not because he can’t afford a car but because, at 14, he’s too young to have a driver’s license.

“I actually use it to go to the grocery store or run errands,” Coleman told the Edge. “Sometimes I take the express bus to Pittsfield to the [Ashuwillticook] rail trail.”

Coleman said he was still living in New York City five years ago with his family and used mass transit all the time. He carried the habit with him when he moved to Great Barrington.

Coleman, who penned a letter to the editor of the Edge earlier this month, pays half of the regular fare because he’s a student. But chances are he would be greatly inconvenienced if the hours and routes were cut back.

Vehicles from the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority’s Paratransit Unit, which serves the disabled population. Photo courtesy Berkshire Regional Transit Authority

“There are not many young people currently using the system,” Coleman said. “We need to increase awareness. Young people are not being marketed to.”

Meanwhile on Beacon Hill, where state lawmakers are considering Baker’s budget proposal, there is considerable sentiment among the Berkshire delegation to not only restore funding but to think outside the box.

In separate interviews, Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, and Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said they were involved in trying to restore at least part of the RTA funding that Baker was cutting.

In the House, both Pignatelli and Rep. John Barrett, D-North Adams, have filed an amendment to the House budget that would increase funding for RTAs by 10 percent. Pignatelli expects the House to take action on the amendment late tonight (Wednesday) or tomorrow, too late to be included in this report. However, if it passes very soon, this article will be updated.

“We are just starting the third day,” Pignatelli said on Wednesday morning of the House budget deliberations. “I remain optimistic.”

Pignatelli said there are two budget amendments concerning RTAs up for consideration: his and Barrett’s; and another sponsored by Rep. Sarah Peake, D-Provincetown. He said his restores more funds for RTAs. Pignatelli admitted to being frustrated with how RTA funding is being handled, especially since the greater-Boston Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority receives so much.

“We’re not making big investments,” he said. “We spend a ton of money on the MBTA, and a ton of money from Berkshire County goes to the MBTA—all the while our local RTA is being cut.”

One of the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority’s hybrid buses in Pittsfield. Photo courtesy Berkshire Regional Transit Authority

Pignatelli insisted Berkshire County and the state need to be innovative and think broadly in the area of public transit. He said the entire legislative delegation has been encouraged to do this and “think differently about the delivery system” and flexibility.

As an example of how slow-moving transit bureaucracies can be, Pignatelli, who worked in his family’s electrical contracting business for 20 years, pointed to BRTA bus service to a mill in Lee that transported workers from their homes to their shifts at the mill. Five years after the mill closed, the bus continued to stop there.

There are also opportunities to help the RTAs legislatively. As Malnati has pointed out, public transit organizations cannot currently have stops on school-district property. Pignatelli thinks the law could be changed if it would help increase ridership and make the RTAs become more sustainable in the long run. There are lots of public school students in the Boston area, for example, who take the MBTA to school.

“This will save towns money,” Pignatelli said. “Why send a big school bus to Sandisfield for three kids?”

Moreover, though, Pignatelli questioned the wisdom of cutting funding for Berkshire County public transit in general, especially since it disproportionately serves what he calls a “disadvantaged” population: young people with little money; low-income workers; elderly people on fixed incomes; and immigrants who are too poor to afford cars and have commutes too lengthy for bicycles.

And he sees economic implications in a declining BRTA. Expanding the BRTA “could help spur the economy, along with the ability to go to work. People who work in restaurants and hotels, they’re out late. If there is no bus, they won’t take the job.”

The interior of the Joseph Scelsi Intermodal Transportation Center in Pittsfield. Berkshire Regional Transit Authority buses are parked outside. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Finally, Pignatelli suggested the possibility of enabling legislation that could allow the BRTA to cross state lines. As an example, he cited a possible BRTA shuttle service to the Metro North station at Wassaic, New York. A recent study by Clarksburg and Stamford, Vermont, to consider merging their school districts might serve as a model for regional services crossing state lines.

In an interview, Hinds, whose district represents the BRTA, called public transit “one of those critical issues for the region that we absolutely need to improve on.”

He agreed with Pignatelli that creative thinking is in order and that something needs to be done to protect the RTAs—first in the short term and then long-term. Tomorrow (Thursday), the Senate is debating a fiscal year 2018 supplemental budget that appropriates an extra $3 million for RTAs in this current fiscal year. Hinds is co-sponsoring an amendment to increase this by $1 million, for a total of $4 million in new funds for the current fiscal year.

While the House has already started deliberating on next year’s budget, the Senate won’t take it up until May. Hinds says he and many others would like to restore RTA funding to the full $88 million the RTA boards are asking for.

“We can’t take away from what we have or increase fares in the short term, but we do need to find better ways to serve,” Hinds said. “There are creative ways to improve.”

Meanwhile, the BRTA board meets Thursday, April 26, at 4 p.m. at the Joseph Scelsi Intermodal Transportation Center in Pittsfield. The board hopes to set its budget in May, but Malnati said that could be tricky if the state hasn’t approved its own spending package by then.

Stay tuned.


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