Council on Aging vans have been repurposed to serve people of all ages for a new transit service in five Berkshire towns.

Seeking to bridge the gap for seniors, workers and others lacking transportation options, several Berkshire County towns have banded together to create a public on-demand ride service.

On May 1, Great Barrington, Stockbridge and Egremont launched the TriTown Connector, a 14-month pilot program allowing people to call and request rides within the towns. The program has been so popular that West Stockbridge and Monterey have since joined.

“It’s sort of like a public Uber,” said Jamie Minacci, a Stockbridge Select Board member. “It’s a way for seniors, or you and I, to get to appointments, to get to the grocery store, to get to work.”

Before the TriConnector vehicles hit the roads, the area relied on a sparse patchwork of transportation services, including senior center vans and limited fixed-route bus service through the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority. The towns have some degree of taxi service, but the fares often prove too expensive for residents, officials said.

Tate Coleman, the TriTown Connector’s part-time program director, spent his early childhood riding the buses and trains in New York City. When he and his family moved to Great Barrington, he asked, “Where’s the transit?” Now a 19-year-old graduate student at UMass Amherst studying regional planning and civil engineering, he has long advocated for more public transit in the Berkshires.

Coleman became involved in a 2021-22 study and community survey conducted by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, an effort that gave birth to the current ride service. The study identified three possible zones for a pilot program, but the zone covering Stockbridge, Egremont and Great Barrington showed the greatest promise. Great Barrington’s senior transit service provided its vehicles.

“If you already have the vehicles, it’s much easier to expand on that than start a new service,” Coleman said. “That was the original idea for the study.”

The $440,000 budget for the pilot includes funding from the communities, fare revenues, a Federal Transit Administration grant, another FTA grant through the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, and funding secured by Rep. Smitty Pignatelli in an economic development bond law.

The Connector service runs weekdays from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., and from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends. A one-way, in-town ride costs $2, while a multi-town ride within the five communities costs $4. Riders can also buy 10-packs of tickets at a discount. While the program is developing a phone app, for now people must request rides by phone, and pay by cash or check.

The system runs with five vehicles — four from Great Barrington and one from West Stockbridge — and the fleet consists of mini buses, vans, and an SUV, several of which are wheelchair accessible. In addition to Coleman, the program has two dispatchers and 14 drivers.

In June, the program had about 600 rides, or 115 unique riders, Coleman said, and each month’s ridership increased at least 25% over the previous month. On Aug. 1, the service set a record of 53 rides for the day. With full staffing, the Connector could probably serve a total of 65 rides in a day, he said.

“For a lot of these people, it’s a lifeline service,” Coleman said.

Coleman said the communities have already committed to the program through fiscal 2025, dependent on grant funding. Coleman said he has already been applying for additional funding, and the program still has another $100,000 from the economic development law to use for the second year.

Melanie Vicneire, Egremont’s transportation administrator, said she hopes the Connector will provide a more specific understanding of the area’s transportation needs.

“It would be really great to be able to expand to a handful of these other rural towns,” Vicneire said, “because there’s definitely a need.”

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