Western Massachusetts lawmakers talk long commutes to Boston, progress made on bridging the digital divide | Local News

Western Massachusetts lawmakers talk long commutes to Boston, progress made on bridging the digital divide | Local News

The sun isn’t even up yet and – chances are – State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Becket, is on his way to the Massachusetts Statehouse, where he will work long after sundown.

Mark’s trips to Beacon Hill take at least two and a half hours one-way and can be long — days in office even longer — but the new state senator knows the importance of attendance. The Statehouse is the place where relationships are built, where the normally dispersed group of legislators come together to get things done on behalf of their constituents across the Commonwealth.

“It’s about being accessible,” he said. “It’s a challenge that our colleagues who are, for example, within a 50-mile radius of Boston, just don’t deal with in the same way.”

So he drives — more than 100 miles by road and makes it to Boston just in time for his 9am meeting.

Lawmakers based in western Massachusetts have long struggled to visit, access, and legislate in a capital city that’s firmly anchored in one of the easternmost parts of the state. While the pandemic has exposed local concerns about access for both voters and lawmakers, many of our lawmakers are still struggling to have their challenges recognized and addressed.

Just a few towns away, Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, struggles with the cost of living a six-hour round trip from the building where she works. The office bursary, which is given to lawmakers who live more than 50 miles from the statehouse, doesn’t even come close to covering all of their travel expenses.

“Distance matters,” she said. “It’s expensive to be a far-flung representative.”

But like Mark, Farley-Bouvier believes it’s important to be present and represent your district. So she drives.

In another part of western Massachusetts, Senator John Velis, D-Westfield, is trying his best to balance life as a new parent with his duties at Beacon Hill, knowing that every time he comes to Boston, this might be the only activity he does every day.

“If you let me choose between my district and Boston, I always choose my district,” he said. “The real toll is when you’re in Boston a lot – and I try to be – one of the main disadvantages is that you’re away from your district more often. You can’t go to an event. You must be missing something.”

But he drives, “is in the room” whenever he can, and doesn’t care whether the Legislature is in formal session or not.

Even Rep. Jake Oliveira, D-Ludlow, who bills himself as the legislator with the easiest commute in western Massachusetts, expects to spend at least an hour and a half with no traffic on the turnpike to Boston.

“I always use this point,” he said. “It’s easier to get to three other state capitals with traffic than to my own. Albany, NY, Hartford, Connecticut and Providence, RI”

Despite this, he drives his car regularly.

In the next session, Mark and Oliveira will go to the upper chamber. As state senator, Mark will represent an area larger than the entire state of Rhode Island. But he is undeterred by the prospect of having to commute alongside the Statehouse between the 57 communities he represents. After all, he’s already completed one of the most challenging commutes from western Massachusetts, driving an average of 60,000 miles a year as a state official.

“You never want any of your constituents to think, ‘We can never reach the person who works for us in Boston,'” Mark said.

So he drives. And for him, the commutes are worth it — especially given the hurdles he used to jump through to attend virtual meetings at the height of the pandemic.

A former resident of Peru, one of 46 cities with completed projects in the Massachusetts Broadband Institute’s Last Mile Program, Mark recalls being the only lawmaker at home without access to cellphone service or high-speed broadband internet.

“It was tough,” he said, “you know, you don’t see it, especially in Boston. When people talked about things, they thought it was weird, and I had to tell them, ‘No, I don’t have internet.’”

He lived in one of Massachusetts’ 53 last-mile cities that MBI said lacked the basic infrastructure to support broadband. So, Mark said, for years he was limited to only having access to the Internet through a satellite dish service, which limited speeds and monthly usage.

“It was really bad,” he said. “It was way behind what everyone else was doing.”

Then, just after the pandemic began, Mark’s home in Peru finally received the infrastructure it needed to run high-speed internet. But not before Beacon Hill was forced online.

With no internet or cellphone service at home when lockdown began in 2020, Mark said he would get in his car before a virtual meeting and drive until he knew his phone wouldn’t interrupt the Zoom call.

“So I’d be in the car and it would be weird because everyone else is on video,” he said. “And I would have to make sure I tell people every time I’m not on video because I’m in my car.”

From a parking space at a Hinsdale elementary school that was closed due to Covid to a pit stop after errands in Pittsfield, Mark’s chosen locations for his car-turned-legislative office had just one requirement: reliable service, which, ask any resident from western Massachusetts, can be difficult to find everything on your own.

Take the Massachusetts Broadband Institute event last week, for example. The event, held in a western Massachusetts town and highlighting the Last Mile program’s progress in bringing broadband to the most underserved areas of the Commonwealth, hosted legions of local lawmakers. But it ironically encountered its own telecommunications access problem when visitors lacked cell phone signal.

State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, who attended the event outside of her district, said she didn’t initially realize there was a problem. But when she drove back to her district, she said, a flood of messages had come in. The missed texts and emails warned her of a “major crisis” in her legislative office.

“Cell phone reception is really critical at this point. Everyone expects you to be available at all times – I think we want to be available at all times – but that can make it really difficult,” she said. “After I left I was able to get in, but our delay is really problematic.”

This dark side of the digital divide stretches across western Massachusetts, affecting both local voters and legislators. While some officials, like Mark, have no choice but to address the issues they and their constituencies face in real time, others, like Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, are thinking long-term how the Legislatures doing this can help fill in the gaps.

“Everyone used to be concerned about the new freeways going here into Berkshire County, and has been for years,” he said. “We finally realized that we need to be on this information superhighway — we need to be on the high-speed lane. And I find that critical. That was really our focus.”

Last month, the Commonwealth took new steps to alleviate some of these injustices by allocating $50 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to digital equity activities. The recently passed economic development package also included funding for some of the unique problems facing western Massachusetts residents — including $75 million to support broadband infrastructure and Internet access — while the government earmarked $275 million earlier this summer promised project for the long-awaited east-west aerial tramway.

Sabadosa said these funds are just the beginning in a long list of gains for western Massachusetts and prove that the challenges of working as a rural legislator are ultimately worth the satisfaction of helping your community get the help it needs.

“I hope [the challenges don’t] Stop people from running for office,” she said. “It’s really a wonderful thing to do.”

Just take it from Mark, who worked as a telephone operator before entering the legislature.

In 2004, he recalls, he went to work splicing fiber for “ultra-fast service” in Woburn and thought “it would be cool” if he could access the same thing in his rural home. More than 18 years later, the elected senator has made his wish come true.

With his recent move to Becket, another recently completed last mile town, Mark said he can finally expect to have the same stable access he built in eastern Massachusetts all those years ago. At home, he no longer has to worry about dropped calls or limited internet services. His car doesn’t have to be his office at the same time. Finally he can turn on his camera in Zoom meetings.

Mark said the issue of access remains paramount for local communities and their representative rural legislators, who are working to ensure an equitable distribution of resources across the state.

“I think our perspective made a difference and has an impact,” he said. “It took a lot longer than I think people want, but we made it. And I think we’re almost where we need to be.”

And that’s why, he said, he drives. He made it to Boston just in time for his 9:00 a.m. meeting.

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