Public health advocates bemoan transportation budget cuts

  • An FRTA bus at Olver Transit Center. Recorder file photo/Paul Franz

Recorder Staff
Published: 3/29/2018 9:57:18 PM

GREENFIELD — At the intersection of public transportation access and budget cuts stands the health of some Franklin County residents, particularly minorities.

That’s what local public health advocates were hammering home at a roundtable meeting Thursday morning on the annual release of state and national county-based health rankings that compare counties to each other in an array of health outcomes from teen pregnancy rates to air pollution.

While the meeting touched on all the different factors contributing to why Franklin County slipped from the middle of the pack to 10th out of 14 Massachusetts counties in its health outcomes, the rankings themselves, which don’t carry any real weight, were of less concern.

Instead there were two key pieces: how people of color in the county, in particular in rural areas here and elsewhere, are typically disproportionately affected by weak points in a place’s ability to provide a healthy environment and how transportation issues continue to be a thorn in the side of the region.

“We have a tendency to silo things out,” said Cheryl Dukes, director of health care outreach and community engagement at the University of Massachusetts Amherst College of Nursing. “But what this conversation is all about is how everything is connected.”

Dukes, a frequent face at Franklin County health-related meetings and an often vocal advocate for people of color, pushed for local health care leaders to focus on these national results. She wants this conversation to tie directly into potential heavy budget cuts in the state, which loom over the Franklin Regional Transit Authority and the transportation system at large.

“These changes actually come out to a higher cost for us, especially in the rural area, because of the reduction of transportation,” Dukes said. “We need to start telling that story.”

Michael Perreault, the assistant administrator at FRTA, told the health care advocates if the significant cuts are included as part of the state’s finalized budget, there will likely be reductions in the frequency of buses and a shrinking of routes that have been recently expanded. He also spoke of a hiring freeze and efforts to renegotiate any contract they can.

“It’s already limited services as it is out here, so any reduction will only backpedal” the current efforts by the FRTA, Perreault said.

One possible way to ease the situation that the group discussed was a November ballot question known as the “Millionaire’s Tax,” or the Fair Share Amendment. If passed, it could help provide the money needed to support transit. It’s also a factor for health care providers and educators and has been a part of a lobbying effort by the county’s Community Health Improvement Plan (CHIP) group.

“That would be a game changer for us culturally here,” Franklin Regional Council of Governments Director of Community Services Phoebe Walker said. “We would have the resources to make a dent in what is constantly a priority for us.”

Walker advocated for more money for the FRTA and transit in western Mass., which could soon see services to Sunderland and Deerfield cut.

She explained that while the county’s rankings show it behind others in the state, the data lags behind and that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the case currently. But Walker acknowledged without additional transportation in the area, or at the very least maintaining what exists, health outcomes will continue to fall below its potential.

What these health advocates made clear was that they have to lobby legislators and local providers to think about access to health for everyone in the county.

You can reach Joshua Solomon at:

jsolomon@recorder.com or

413-772-0261, ext. 264


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