Baker’s plan to hike fees worries some in Berkshires

(Shilin Wang/Creative Commons)

By Damian Burchardt
BU News Service

BOSTON — Berkshire County lawmakers are concerned that Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposed fee increase for ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft might unfairly bill Western Massachusetts residents for the state’s attempts to find new revenue streams for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

In his annual budget plan unveiled in late January, Baker called for an increase in the per-trip fees for transportation network companies from 20 cents per ride to $1 per ride.

The legislation also would change the way revenue from the fee is shared between the state and municipalities, veering off from the current 50-50 split and directing 70 percent of the generated money toward the MBTA’s budget.

And the proposed method of money dispersion is what state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, finds particularly problematic, even though he does not oppose extra charges imposed on transportation network companies by the state.

Pignatelli points out that the Berkshires already generate around $30 million annually for the MBTA, which, he says, “seems to be in a disastrous state, condition-wise and operations.”

And he claims that any additional money should be retained by Massachusetts counties for the sake of “regional equity.”

“We have paid enough,” Pignatelli says. “There are people in my district that have never been to Boston, have never been on the MBTA. So, why should we be paying so much money from Western Mass. to the MBTA?”

When asked whether Baker’s proposal seems to be Boston-centered, he replied: “That’s always been my issue since I’ve been in [the Statehouse]. Sometimes, it’s not the commonwealth of Massachusetts budget. It’s the commonwealth of Boston.”

Pignatelli’s concerns are echoed by Uber and Lyft.

“Residents across the commonwealth rely on services like Uber to get around — especially those who don’t have access to public transit,” Uber spokesperson Alix Anfang said in a statement. “Residents who live in rural communities in western Massachusetts should not be hit with a significant tax increase to pay for transit improvements in Boston.”

“We share the goal to support transit. However, a five-times increase on rideshare fees will increase cost of rideshare and will not solve congestion and transportation challenges in Massachusetts,” Campbell Matthews, of Lyft, added in a separate statement.

The availability of ride-hailing services in the Berkshires is considerably scarcer than it is in more-populated regions of Massachusetts, however.

As many as 42.2 million transportation network companies rides were ordered in Boston alone in 2018, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities.

Meanwhile, only 27,189 rides originated in Pittsfield in the same time frame, but the city recorded a 167 percent increase in total rides compared to data from 2017. That is one of the largest increases in the state.

State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, thinks that, due to the currently little concentration of Uber and Lyft cars in the county, the fee increase would not have a severe impact on Berkshire residents.

“This is in the category of new fees that do tend to concentrate in the greater Boston area, and that’s actually good news for us,” he says. “Usually, it’s our sales tax and our gas taxes that go to the greater Boston area.

“In this case, we have fewer Ubers and Lyfts in Western Mass., so, it strikes me as a decent approach,” he added.

State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, believes that since transportation network companies do not contribute to congestion in the region, the fee hike should not be statewide. Instead, she suggests raising it to $2 per ride, but only for the Boston metro area.

“We don’t have to put the burden on most riders here now, but in the Boston metro area, I think that we should have them pay significant fees,” Farley-Bouvier says. “And all of that money can go to the MBTA because it is collected in the MBTA area.”

“We need options for when and where public transportation is not an option. And we don’t have that now,” she said, when asked about the significance of Uber and Lyft in the Berkshires.

“It could really help us with our public transportation issues that we have here. And that’s why I do not want the fees raised here,” she said. “We don’t need them raised here, because we don’t have the congestion.”

This article was originally published in The Berkshire Eagle.

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