BRTA to pilot bus service expansion

The Local Schools Study Group, under the purview of Experiential Education, is working with the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority (BRTA) to develop a pilot program for expanded bus service during the upcoming 2012-13 academic year. The expansion would be focused on the route between Williamstown and North Adams. In particular, the initiative is focused on supporting regional economic development while creating a consistent and cost-effective way for College students to transport themselves to and from work at local schools. This initiative also grew in part out of survey research done by the Community Engagement Study Group.

Students from the College are involved with local schools in North Adams through both the Williams Elementary Outreach Program, which arranges for students to help out in classrooms, and through the Center for Community Engagement (CCE), which arranges afterschool tutoring. With both programs, transportation has previously been arranged in a variety of ways, including the use of Zipcars, College vans and personal cars, but all of these options have limitations and may not be available to all students.

“As we’re looking at CCE and we’re looking at the significant amount of work our students do (and want to do) in local schools, it’s obvious that one of the main logistical challenges [or] obstacles is transportation,” Vice President for Campus Life Steve Klass said. As a result, the College has reached out to the BRTA and other partners to explore alternative options.

The BRTA is facing challenges of its own, having seen declining demand for service, even as – and perhaps because – service was cut to longer intervals. “Right now bus services that travel every hour are not highly used. They’re not frequent enough for people to use it on a whim,” said Paula Consolini, coordinator of Experiential Education and one of the primary people involved in developing the initiative on the part of the College.

Thus, plans for a pilot program may be a win-win situation for the College and the BRTA. The College already pays for students to travel to North Adams by various means, but instead this money would go towards paying for the pilot program. While streamlining travel for students, it will offer the BRTA a low-risk opportunity to test whether there might be greater demand for more frequent service.

“The long-term hope is that we help the BRTA to provide more substantial bus services. They need evidence for demand,” Consolini said. “That would build greater connections between communities, and we could become a greener community as a result.” She also pointed out that it would make commuting between the two towns easier.

The College has tentatively estimated contributing about $100 for each 5.5-hour run ($4800 for two days per week over the course of the semester), and the BRTA is also using some of its own funding to support the program in its pilot phase.

While details are still being worked out, the expectation is that College students will be able to ride new, added routes for free. The prospect of students riding the bus for free may be a future area of negotiation.

Whereas the buses currently run hourly during the day until 6 p.m., the expansion would double service a few afternoons per week. Accordingly, Elementary Outreach is coordinating with the CCE to consolidate schedules in order to make the best use of the buses. The Office of Experiential Education will be meeting with BRTA in the coming weeks to determine the details of a pilot program, including the days it would run, the cost and the route.

If the pilot program is put into place in November, the Local Schools Study Group, the BRTA and other interested stakeholders would review the program after its first phase and consider extending service throughout Winter Study and the spring semester.