Lawmakers to Healey: Remember western Mass.

  • Massachusetts Gov.-elect Maura Healey speaks during a Democratic election night party Nov. 8 in Boston. AP

  • State Rep. Susannah Whipps, I-Athol STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • State Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland STAFF FILE PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

For the Athol Daily News
Published: 11/27/2022 1:43:35 PM
Modified: 11/27/2022 1:41:09 PM

BOSTON — Western Massachusetts lawmakers say Gov.-elect Maura Healey needs to remember the needs of region as she charts a course for her new administration.

“We are 20% of the population living in 80% of the landmass,” said state Rep. Susannah Whipps, I-Athol. “We might have similar problems, but solutions that are often developed in Boston do not apply well to rural areas, including western Mass.”

Healey scored a historic victory in the Nov. 8 election, becoming the first elected female governor in Massachusetts and the nation’s first openly lesbian governor.

The Massachusetts attorney general, who had already won statewide office twice and held a significant advantage in fundraising and steadily led in polls throughout the campaign, easily defeated former state Rep. Geoff Diehl, who was backed by former President Donald Trump.

Healey’s political agenda addressed immigration, affordable housing, education, transportation, climate change, criminal justice reform, economic development, child tax credits, and health care issues. However, Whipps worries that when dealing with a wide range of pressing matters, officials in Boston sometimes overlook the needs of the western part of the state.

One of the major issues that need to be tackled, Whipps said, is transportation. Although the Chapter 90 program aims to provide municipalities with an annual funding source for improvements to and investments in local transportation networks, more is needed, because in rural areas, the burden of transportation infrastructure falls on a relatively small number of taxpayers.

“The balance is off. There are a few communities out here with more than 30 miles of road and 700 taxpayers, and they are paying for those roads,” Whipps said. “We are looking forward to a strong relationship between the administration and the Department of Transportation to make sure that the responsibility of maintaining these roads is not left up to such small communities. We had a federal program that allowed small buses and vans to help people commute, but over the years it has become more expensive and less sustainable.”

MassDOT statistics show that households spent an average of $10,961 on transportation in 2021. These expenditures grew by the third largest amount (11.6%) from 2020 to 2021, behind apparel and services (22.3%) and food (13.4%). With ongoing inflation and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine directly impacting gas and oil prices, the numbers are expected to grow this year and next.

Affordable housing is another issue the region’s representatives are looking forward to being solved. The Pioneer Valley has 10% of Massachusetts’ rental units but has 15% of the state’s rent income mismatch. In other words, one in six apartments in the commonwealth that are financially out of reach are located in the Pioneer Valley.

State Rep. Lindsey Sabadosa, D-Northampton, explained that affordable housing requires an investment of state dollars. Many apartment buildings are necessary for the area, but if only private developers continue building, housing will become more expensive, driving up rents and the entire market.

“We need to make sure that our communities are accessible and welcoming to everyone, irrespective of their income level,” Sabadosa said. “It is important to produce affordable housing, but also to produce affordable and sustainable housing — properties where tenants won’t have to worry 10 years from now about fluctuating gas and oil prices because their buildings have been built using green technologies that, in the end, allow for less fluctuation in prices.”

State Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, also emphasized the importance of transportation options in the region, saying communities need cost-efficient solutions.

“We have communities like Greenfield, where there is no public transportation in the evenings or on the weekends,” Blais said. “So, if you do not have a car and need to get to your job or get your child to their child care provider, or if you want to attend classes at Greenfield Community College, it is a real barrier for economic mobility.”

Blais, a member of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee and co-chair of the Regional Transit Authority caucus, said that the commonwealth needs to improve unpaved roads, as there are western Massachusetts communities where 60% of the total road mileage is unpaved. It creates a disproportionate burden on small towns, particularly as these communities have more frequent and intense storms and mud seasons.

“Leverett is a town in my community where they have to shut down Dudleyville Road completely,” Blais said. “The residents could not get to or from work, and emergency vehicles could not get to them if there were an emergency. It is a real public health, economic development, and education issue.”

Blais said transportation issues impact the health care system as well.

There is a nursing shortage throughout the country, and Massachusetts is no exception. An estimated 15,000 jobs are yet to be recovered from the pandemic fallout, and the lack of basic infrastructure challenges local hospitals.

Although Baystate Franklin Medical Center has a new program that is designed to address the nursing shortage, Blais said it needs a systematic approach.

“We find it very difficult to attract nurses and doctors to live and work in rural communities,” Blais said. “It is challenging for the professionals to meet our residents because there are no public transportation options if they do not have cars. If you do not have someone ready to serve you, then you are not getting the care you need.”

Healey will be sworn in as the 73rd governor of Massachusetts on Jan. 5, and the representatives expect to bring western Mass. community voices to the new governor.

“I think there are going to be many legislative proposals,” Sabadosa said. “To my understanding, they are putting together policy teams to examine the state’s various issues. I am very appreciative of the fact that the governor-elect is ready and focused entirely on the work.”

Nino Mtchedlishvili writes for the Athol Daily News from the Boston University’s Statehouse program.

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