Berkshire Eagle: Hundreds of millions needed to fix Berkshire transportation system

Hundreds of millions needed to fix Berkshire transportation system

By Tony Dobrowolski, Berkshire Eagle

Friday January 4, 2013

PITTSFIELD — At least $136 million is needed to bring Berkshire County’s road system up to an acceptable condition, and the Berkshire Regional Transportation Authority actually needs $8.7 million annually just to bring its transit operations up to an acceptable standard.

Those figures, compiled by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, illustrate the need for widespread improvements in the local transportation system.

With state lawmakers signaling that transportation funding will be among the key issues statewide in the coming months, representatives of several transportation-minded groups affected by those inadequacies believe that now is the time to act. Improving the state’s transportation infrastructure would boost people’s access to necessities like post-secondary education, jobs and doctors, and it would also result in safer roads and bridges in which maintenance isn’t delayed, according to the groups.

“Unfortunately, the current sources of revenue are just woefully inadequate,” said Elizabeth Weyant, advocacy director of Transportation Massachusetts, a diverse coalition of state organizations working to create convenient, affordable transportation choices for the state.

One of the main funding sources for transportation in Massachusetts is the gasoline tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993, according to the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

When that 19-cent tax was set 20 years ago, the average cost of gasoline was $1.07 per gallon, so the state levy represented 17.8 percent of the total cost. In 2013, that same tax represents less than 6 percent of the average state gasoline price of $3.46 per gallon, according to the BRPC.

“There’s just not enough money to fund our transportation needs,” said Weyant, during a meeting with Eagle editors and a reporter on Thursday.

“Without investment in transportation, we’re losing jobs,” she said. “We’re not able to bring strong employers to the commonwealth and keep people here.”

Gov. Deval Patrick and key legislators have suggested that new revenues will be needed to fund transportation improvements. But they have yet to say whether they would support a tax increase, such as in the gas tax. The administration is expected to deliver a transportation finance report by Monday.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo told reporters on Wednesday that “everything and anything is on the table” regarding a possible hike in the state gas tax, but added that he would first seek to improve efficiency in the transportation system.

With all these forces beginning to coalesce around these issues, Weyant said “we really think that now is a unique moment to invest in our entire transportation system.”

Regarding the county’s road system, Pittsfield native Anthony Puntin, the executive director of the Boston Society of Civil Engineers, said he isn’t sure where the additional funding will come from.

“But if we don’t invest [now] it will cost a lot more 30 years from now that it will three years from now,” Puntin said.

In the Berkshires, BRPC Executive Director Nathaniel Karns said the BRTA’s “primary wish list” includes $1.7 million annually to establish evening bus service on weekdays and Saturdays, $580,000 annually to establish Sunday service, $3.2 million to increase service frequency on selected routes, and $319,000 annually for express service on limited routes. The BRTA has also identified $23 million in capital needs. That figure does not include new forms of service to assist more rural areas. The BRTA’s annual transit budget is around $5 million, which includes $1.8 million in state contractual assistance.

Berkshire Community College President Ellen Kennedy said 100 students rely on public transportation to reach BCC’s main campus on West Street. It takes two hours for some students who live in North Adams to reach BCC using public transportation and the ride schedule doesn’t permit access to BCC at night and weekends, she said. Bus passes cost students $21, Kennedy said, but BCC helps underwrite the cost by paying $6 of that.

“That costs us almost $6,000 for bus passes through student fees,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy said a more flexible bus system would also allow both students and the community at large to attend public events at BCC and use the college’s facilities like the pool and gym.

“We can’t get people out here on the weekends,” she said.

Pamela Schwartz, the director of the Western Massachusetts Network to Fund Homelessness, said 66 percent of Berkshire residents living in poverty are considered to be “rent burdened,” which means that more than 50 percent of their income goes toward their living expenses.

“You can’t escape that with better employment,” Schwartz said. “You need to have a way to get to work.”

Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.

Berkshire transportation needs

Roads: $136 million to bring the county’s road and highway system to an acceptable condition (requiring only preventative maintenance).

Bridges: More than $160 million, not accounting for future deterioration.

State highway system: Roughly $100 million to $115 million for modest improvements to highways over the next 25 years.

Transit: $8.7 million annually for BRTA to bring operations up to a passable standard.

Rail: $200 million to upgrade Housatonic Railroad line for passenger service between Pittsfield and Danbury, Conn., split equally between Massachusetts and Connecticut.