DEAR JO: The gaps in public bus routes make it difficult for Valley residents who do not drive to accept jobs in key local industries, such as health care and manufacturing, especially when the jobs take place during off-hour shifts. A regional dialogue has begun to explore possible connections between public bus routes and rides on demand. How can your office lift up and expedite these explorations so that people who want to work have greater access to these open positions, and employers who seek to hire have a bigger pool of qualified candidates?
— Laurie Millman, Leverett
DEAR LAURIE: Your question gets right at a knot of intersecting issues — from regional transportation to access to drivers licenses to breaking down barriers that stand between residents and jobs. I’ll do my best to dig into some of them, below in three parts.
Regional transit authorities
We have to tackle funding for regional transit authorities like the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, which serves Hampshire and Hampden counties. Regional transit authorities have a much larger service area than the Boston-based MBTA, but receive a fraction of state investment.
A task force with broad representation met weekly for almost a year to look at issues affecting regional authorities. Its final report, delivered this spring, recommended a number of things, including increased funding and exploring on-demand or microtransit models.
The Legislature increased RTA funding to the recommended $90.5 million in the fiscal 2020, but with some constraints, which I hope we can remove in the next budget cycle. Then, noting that the report recommended exploring on-demand and microtransit models, I worked to secure funding through the state budget for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments to create a ride-share pilot, which will explore an innovative and nimble model for low-population areas, or areas under-served by public transit.
I agree with you. We must forge connections between bus routes and rides on demand. The funding I secured will be used to first develop and test ride-share options for recipients of social service agencies by using technology, in partnership with public transit and the nonprofit and private sectors. A ride-share model can be useful when fixed-route bus service is either not available, or when an extra ride is needed to access the fixed route system. By feeding riders into the fixed-route system when possible, I’m hopeful the RTA’s ridership base can grow as a result.
This pilot will also help us understand if there are areas of unmet demand that could be used to justify the expansion of fixed route RTA service, or that would support a van-based rideshare-like system.
Laurie, realizing that you lead Center for New Americans, I want to highlight another piece of this puzzle which is embodied by a piece of legislation titled An Act Relative to Work & Family Mobility.
This bill had a hearing on Wednesday of this week and would allow all qualified drivers, regardless of immigration status, to apply for a standard Massachusetts driver’s license. I’m a proud cosponsor of this legislation, which is also supported by a broad coalition of businesses like area farmers, labor unions, community-based immigrant rights advocates and more.
Finally, you asked about exploring how employers can have a bigger pool of qualified candidates, noting our shortage of health care workers in the region. In this budget, the Legislature created a commission to study the barriers to professional licensure in medical fields. As Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Public Health, I’ve been appointed to this committee.
But we can and must go further, which is why I partnered with Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, and The Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition to introduce S.1053, a bill that calls for establishing a special commission to foster greater opportunities for skilled immigrants in the commonwealth.
If passed, this commission will research the unnecessary barriers to professional licensure for immigrants in fields including health care and beyond. The commission will also look at ways and promote workforce training, education and business development.
After you sent in this question, Laurie, I reached out to Mark Ailinger, the administrator at Linda Manor Extended Care Facility in Northampton, so that I could hear a concrete example of the issues you raised.
I listened as Mark described the extraordinary difficulties finding qualified and licensed folks to fill open positions. And I cringed at the “insult to injury” he has experienced when he’s found the perfect candidate — only to find that they cannot secure necessary transportation.
To quote Mark, “frustrating just isn’t a strong enough word” to describe these double binds of having people who have expertise and yet are unable to get licensed and transportation barriers that prevent people from being able to take open positions.
I’m all in to help bring an end to these infuriating and unjust barriers to workforce development and immigrant rights.
State Sen. Jo Comerford represents 160,000 people living in 24 cities and towns in the Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester district in the Massachusetts Legislature.
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