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BerkshireRides Fills a Transportation Need for the North County Workforce

In 2002, the nonprofit transportation-assistance outfit BerkshireRides, based in North Adams, had its maiden voyage, picking up two families to take them to see their children perform at a local theater festival.

Jana Brule, executive director of BerkshireRides, said the organization had scarcely set up shop when the mayor called with a simple request: “can you help these people?”

“We said yes, and that was it,” said Brule. “It was a good example of the connection with the community we were trying to create, and two families got to see their children in their play. Things like that are important.”

Since then, BerkshireRides has completed more than 200,000 rides, delivering Berkshire residents living in Adams, Cheshire, Clarksburg, Florida, North Adams, Savoy, and Williamstown to their jobs, job training, or other community-related events.

The concept is simple: to combat transportation issues — particularly those that affect the workforce, such as bus schedules that don’t mesh with work schedules or a lack of service within certain parts of the service area — BerkshireRides offers van service to work, work-related appointments such as interviews, and training programs. In addition, the organization provides transportation to community-related meetings and events through various partnerships, and serves as a call center for residents in the Northern Berkshire area who need transportation for any reason by helping them locate a ride, either through the Berkshire Regional Transportation Authority (BRTA), or by other means.

Brule said the idea of such a service was born from a Northern Berkshire Community Coalition forum held in 2000, at which residents cited a need for reliable transportation to get to jobs.

From there, U.S. Rep. John Olver lent his legislative support, helping to secure federal funding. BerkshireRides was launched in 2002 as what’s known as a ‘federal demonstration project,’ designed to test a concept and, hopefully, develop a model for other communities across the country.

The organization, which operates in association with the Transportation Assoc. of Northern Berkshire Inc., has a sister project based in Athol called Community Transit Services Inc. that is also a federal demonstration project in Olver’s district.

Wheels in Motion

About 80% of BerkshireRides’ funding comes from the Federal Transportation Authority. The remainder is offset by local grants from entities such as the United Way and the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, and by nominal fares collected from riders — $1.25 for transportation within the residential service area, and $4 to Pittsfield or the Jiminy Peak resort in Hancock.

Brule added that, since 2002, Berkshire Rides has grown and diversified its organizational structure. The service runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and its two major prongs — what are dubbed ‘employment transportation’ and ‘community transportation’ — operate independently of one another, while still addressing the same needs in the region.

“Employment rides are provided by a for-profit transportation provider that we contract with,” she explained, “and then we also have a community van pool, helped by local grant funds, for which we purchased four of our own vehicles.”

That pool carries people to various specific activities sponsored by other nonprofits and community groups (BerkshireRides partners with 11 different groups that help screen drivers and pay some expenses), including youth programming, leadership workshops, and career-development classes. In addition, Brule said the model is flexible enough to allow for rides for other reasons, including those involving school-related functions and appointments, such as parent-teacher meetings.

But despite the success of the program — it averages 3,100 rides a month on the employment transportation end, and an additional 250 rides a week to community events, meetings, and programming — Brule said it’s not the intention of BerkshireRides to replace any existing services in the region.

“The mission is to remove transportation barriers, period,” she said. “We’re here to augment what’s already out there and to fill gaps, not take passengers away from other services.”

Lines of Communication

Further, Brule said those other services, BRTA busing included, play a strong role in BerkshireRides’ plans for the future.

“We hope to always be able to expand, but also to advocate for good transportation,” she said. “We have a good relationship with the BRTA, and our hope is that we can help them develop new routes that are responsive to residents’ needs.”

Brule noted that it has been several years since the BRTA made a route change, and she’s recognized a need for expanded hours and geographical reach.

“The biggest issue is timing,” she explained. “In North County, a lot of people work in Pittsfield because it is our biggest hub. The hope is to get an express route to Pittsfield, or start buses earlier in the morning for those who need to make a 7 a.m. shift.”

Brule said BerkshireRides will continue to work closely with the BRTA to make those “fine-tunings,” as she called them, and will also continue to offer transportation services in those areas not yet served by the bus lines.

“We will continue to fill in those gaps; we want to be here for folks as a back-up,” Brule said, noting that the organization doesn’t do a lot of aggressive marketing, but awareness of its service continues to gradually spread through word of mouth.

She said she and other representatives from BerkshireRides will most often have face-to-face chats with other groups and individuals in the region to spread the message, and to appeal to younger riders, the group has its own MySpace page.

“We’re out there talking a lot,” said Brule. “When we hit our five-year mark last August, we produced our first report and mailed it to every home in our service area, so that has brought a lot of awareness.”

And, she expects the service to continue to grow; currently, BerkshireRides adds an average of 20% more rides to its load every six months, and with the current state of gas prices, that’s expected to ramp up.

That puts an added squeeze on BerkshireRides’ own business model, which includes vans that drive upwards of 1,200 miles a day. However, Brule said the group is taking advantage of its affiliation with the Community Transportation Assoc. of America and its newly retooled fuel-reimbursement program, and working alongside its service vendors to get them a 3-cent reimbursement on fuel costs.

It’s a small kickback, but a big help in a larger mission — to help the workforce, assist the community, and make school-aged children feel like the star of the show as their parents applaud from the audience.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

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