Food Bank Hosts Second Transportation Advocacy Forum

Laura Sylvester, Public Policy Manager at the Food Bank, providing opening remarks.

On Friday June 2nd, The Food Bank and its partners in the Western Massachusetts Transportation Advocacy Network (WMTAN) hosted their second forum discussing issues and potential solutions regarding public transportation in the western half of the Commonwealth. Transportation is important to the advocacy team at the Food Bank because years of research and personal testimonials show that being able to afford food is often only half the battle for families facing food insecurity– they also must be able to travel to and from stores with affordable, healthy options.  

Representatives from Hilltown Community Development presenting on investments in infrastructure in rural areas.

For residents who don’t drive or have access to a vehicle, and don’t live within a walkable radius of a grocery store, planning trips around limited public transportation availability can be a major challenge. There are three RTA’s (Regional Transit Authorities) that operate in Western Massachusetts, the PVTA serving Hampden and Hampshire Counties, the FRTA serving Franklin County, and the BRTA, serving Berkshire County. Unfortunately, funding inequities for transportation in Boston versus transportation in the rest of the state are vast. The MBTA receives 93% of state funding and the other fifteen RTA’s must split the remaining 7%, making the public transportation serving the population outside of Metro Boston woefully inadequate. 

Speakers at the forum discussed a wide range of topics, from the personal story of Elizabeth Quirk and her work with the FRTA free fare program, to a deep dive into the operations of micro-transit organizations offering rides in very rural areas. The Pioneer Valley Planning Commission presented the early version of an innovative new mapping tool (commissioned by the Food Bank and the WMTAN and funded by grants from T4MA and Feeding America) that provides a birdseye view of where public transportation is available in the region and its proximity to grocery stores, places of employment, higher education, and medical care. The tool is helpful for advocates who study transportation issues and can be used by anyone relying on local public transportation to plan their trips.  

A preview of the PVPC’s interactive map, Zoomed in to show details in Franklin County.

Other presentations included The Quaboag Connectorthe first microtransit pilot in our region that set the bar high for what success looks like serving a rural population with on-demand publicly subsidized transportation. This concept has continued to evolve in the area with Tate Coleman’s newest microtransit pilot in Great Barrington and stands as a great example of how local advocacy and passion can create change and improve access. Craig’s Doors Fare Access Program, the first in the nation to provide free bus passes to people experiencing homelessness, discussed how the increased freedom of movement is allowing people to apply for jobs, visit family and friends, access food, and much more. For a full list of featured speakers and their topics, as well as a link to a recording of the event both are available at the bottom of this page. 

Eric J. Gonzales Ph.D. of UMass Amherst presenting a MassDOT Focus Group Study of Food Access in the Connecticut River Valley.

The WMTAN formed after the first Transportation Forum, organized by the Food Bank in 2019. Led by Public Policy Manager Laura Sylvester, the WMTAN meets monthly via Zoom and is open to anyone with an interest in transportation policy and issues. “The original idea for the group was to bring together RTA employees, planners, advocates, transportation users, and legislators to highlight the innovative work that’s already being done in Western Massachusetts, to share best practices and to leverage our voices in advocating for better funding,” Sylvester says. “This latest Forum was an opportunity to bring that work to a wider audience and spread the word.” 

Forum attendees gathering during a break in the presentations.

After lunch, attendees gathered in groups to discuss topics brought up by each speaker, providing space for sharing, networking, and encouraging participants to bring ideas that were presented into their own communities and organizing circles. If you were not able to attend but wish to learn more about the topics discussed, a full recording of the event can be found here as well as embedded on the page below. If you want to sign up for advocacy alerts from the Food Bank to stay up to date on opportunities to get involved in creating a more equitable Western Massachusetts, you can do so here. 

A special thank you to our sponsors, T4MA and Instacart, for making this event possible. 

Forum Topics and Speakers

  • Carrie Lavallee, Deputy Administrator/Chief Engineer, MassDOT, Keynote
  • Dave Christopolis, Hilltown Community Development, Hilltown CDC Mobile Market
  • Jen Healey and Sheila Cuddy, Quaboag Valley Community Development Corporation, Update on QUABOAG CONNECTOR
  • Elizabeth Quirk, FRTA, FRTA Fare-free bus program
  • Tate Coleman, Great Barrington Microtransit Project
  • Eric J. Gonzales, Ph.D., UMass, MassDOT Focus Group on Study of Food Access in Pioneer Valley
  • Molly Jackson-Watts, Jacob Dolinger, PVPC, GIS Mapping Project
  • Jack Myers, Tim McCarthy, Craig’s Doors Amherst, Fare Access Program for Clients experiencing homelessness
  • Alexis Diaz, Holyoke Farmer’s Market, Free van/bus program to Farmer’s Market