Bus service cuts would signal wrong turn, officials say

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PITTSFIELD — Cuts to public transportation could be a matter of life or death, said board members at the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority on Thursday.

Because the county houses a disproportionately high population of seniors, they said, a core contingent of BRTA customers uses the service to get to appointments with their doctors.

"Those are people who depend on these services to stay alive," said Sheila Irvin, a BRTA board member and vice chair of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. "We have to keep in mind, any of these changes is going to be life-shattering to them, in a sense. I don't know what other options there are for them."

The authority is $378,400 in the red, and board members said there's no way to balance that out without "at least one big bite." They must approve a budget next month.

Board member Harvey Drosehn called it "legalized robbery" that so much Berkshire money goes to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, "something that's benefiting us in no way, shape or form." Berkshire residents ship east $30 million to $35 million annually in transportation taxes and receive $2.5 million in return, BRTA officials said.

"It's wrong," Drosehn said. "It's just wrong."

And unlike those in points eastward, county residents can't as easily call an Uber or commercial cab.

Bob Malnati, executive director of the BRTA, is working with state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, to explore alternative scenarios. Hinds said the future of the service could include heavier use of paratransit vans to supplement reduced fixed-route service.

"When you don't have the numbers you do in cities, we need to be creative about using all these assets," he said.

Malnati said there's nowhere left to trim without restructuring or eliminating routes.

"We're not buying anything we don't need," he told board members.

He said fixed costs like those for fuel, insurance and wages are rapidly outpacing state and federal reimbursements. Health insurance costs alone increased by 25 percent last year, he said, and this year are due for an additional increase of 10 to 15 percent.

Reimbursements are tied to ridership and population, he said, and so lagging numbers on both counts make it harder to argue for additional funds. Still, he said, the BRTA should be working to extend service later into the evenings and into Sundays in order to gain more traction in the community.

He said currently "people are on the bus because they need to be," but if BRTA provided evening service, the agency could cast a wider net. Nonriders responding to a survey reported they would consider riding the bus to cultural events, he said, which happen in the evenings.

Malnati said a major obstacle in increasing ridership has to do with public awareness. He said he has a message for Berkshire residents: "we exist."

"There is a bus system, and you can use it and it can take you where you need to go," he said.

The House voted this week to add $2 million to funding for regional transportation authorities, short of the $8 million that state reps. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, and William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, hoped to provide on top of the $80 million budgeted.

To be eligible for a portion of the $2 million included in the House measure, transit authorities must file plans by the end of the year showing how they will close budget deficits in three years.

"They're calling for them to be accountable," Barrett said.

Barrett said he hoped the Senate budget would increase funding for transit authorities, aided by Senate President Harriette L. Chandler, a Worcester Democrat with an interest in public transit.

Malnati called it "a question of equity."

"What's good for Boston should be good for Western Mass.," he said. "We're all supposed to be one commonwealth."

Larry Parnass contributed to this report.

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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