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

The sun hasn’t risen yet, and—chances are—Rep. Paul Mark, D-Pickett, is on his way to the Massachusetts State House, where he’ll be working until well after sunset.

At least two and a half hours one way, Mark’s commute to Beacon Hill can be long—days in office are even longer—but the incoming senator knows how important it is to be there. The State House is where relationships are built, where the usually scattered group of legislators come together to get things done on behalf of their constituents across the Commonwealth.

“It’s a matter of accessibility,” he said. “It’s a challenge that our colleagues based 50 miles from Boston, for example, don’t approach in the same way.”

So he drives – over 100 miles on the road, and arrives in Boston just in time for the 9 a.m. meeting.

Massachusetts lawmakers have long struggled to visit, access, and legislate a capital firmly planted in one of the eastern parts of the state. While the pandemic has overshadowed local concerns about access for voters and lawmakers alike, many of our lawmakers still struggle to recognize and address their challenges.

Just a few towns away, State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, struggles with the cost of living the six-hour commute from the building where she works. The office salary given to legislators who reside more than 50 miles from the statehouse doesn’t even come close to covering her total travel expenses.

“Distance is important,” she said. “It’s expensive to be a remote rep.”

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

In another part of western Massachusetts, state Sen. John Phillis, a Westfield Democrat, does his best to balance being a new parent with his duties on Beacon Hill, knowing that anytime he goes to Boston, it may be the only activity he does. with it. day.

“If you make me choose between being in my area and being in Boston,” he said, “I will always choose to be in my area.” “The real toll is that if you’re in Boston a lot—and I try to be—one of the major downsides is that you’re out of your area a lot of the time. You can’t go to an event. You have to miss something.”

But he drives, “in the chamber” whenever he can, unconcerned whether or not the legislature is in formal session.

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Even Rep. Jake Oliveira, D-Ludlow, who identifies himself as a Western Massachusetts legislator with an easy commute, expects to spend at least an hour and a half on the ring road to Boston without traffic.

“I always use this point,” he said. “It is easier to get to three other state capitals than to get to my own using traffic. Albany, New York, Hartford, Connecticut, Providence, Rhode Island”

However, he drives regularly.

In the next session, Mark and Oliveira will move to the upper room. As a senator, Mark will represent a district larger than the entire state of Rhode Island. But he doesn’t let the prospect of having to move between the 57 communities he represents, in addition to Statehouse, worry him. After all, he’s already made one of the toughest commutes from western Massachusetts, putting in an annual average of 60,000 miles on his car as a state representative.

“You never want one of your constituents to think, ‘The guy who works for us in Boston, we can never afford him,'” Mark said.

So he drives. And for him, the commute is worth it — especially given the hoops 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 projects completed by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute’s Last Mile program, Mark recalls the time he spent as a lone legislator without access to cell phone service or high-speed and broadband internet at home.

“It was hard, you know, not seeing it, especially in Boston,” he said. “So when people were talking about things, they’d think it was weird, and I would have to explain to them, ‘No, I don’t have the Internet.'”

He lived in one of the 53 Massachusetts towns within miles identified by the MBI as lacking the basic infrastructure needed to support broadband. So, Mark said, he was for years restricted to accessing the Internet only by a satellite dish service that limited speeds and monthly usage.

“It was really bad,” he said. “It was far from what other people were doing.”

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

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Without internet or mobile service at home at the start of the lockdown in 2020, Mark said, he would get in his car before a virtual meeting and drive until he knew his phone wouldn’t drop a Zoom call.

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

From an elementary school parking lot in Hinsdale closed to Covid to a pit stop after running errands in Pittsfield, Marks chosen for his car office-turned-legislative office had only one condition: reliable service, which, as any western Massachusetts resident could ask, could be from Hard to find everything on its own.

Take last week’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology broadband event, for example. Held in the western Massachusetts town, the event highlighting the last-mile program’s progress in bringing broadband to the most disadvantaged areas of the Commonwealth hosted legions of local legislators. But ironically, she had trouble accessing her communications when visitors couldn’t get mobile phone service.

State Rep. Lindsey Sappadosa, D-Northampton, who attended the event outside her district, said she didn’t realize there was a problem at first. But, as she was driving back to her neighborhood, she said, a flurry of messages came in. Missed text messages and emails warned her of a “major crisis” in her legislative office.

“Receiving cells at this point is really critical. Everyone expects you to be available at any moment — I think we want to be available at any moment — but that can make it really difficult,” she said. “Once she left, I was able to get her, but our delay is a real problem.”

This dark side of the digital divide extends across western Massachusetts to influence both voters and local legislators. While some officials, like Mark, have no choice but to address the issues facing them and their constituencies in real time, others, like Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, are thinking long-term about ways the legislature can help. Fill in the gaps.

“Everyone used to worry about new highways coming into Berkshire, going back years and years,” he said. “We finally realized we had to be on this information superhighway — we had to be in a high-speed lane. And I think that’s critical. That’s really been our focus.”

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Last month, the Commonwealth took new steps toward mitigating some of these disparities by setting aside $50 million in US Rescue Act funding for digital equity activities. A recently passed economic development package included money for some of the unique problems facing residents of western Massachusetts — including $75 million to support broadband infrastructure and Internet access — while the government promised $275 million earlier this summer for the commuter train. The long-awaited East-West. Project.

This money is just the beginning in a long list of wins for western Massachusetts, Sabadosa said, proving that the challenges of working as a rural legislator are ultimately worth the satisfaction of helping your community get the help it needs.

“hopefull [the challenges don’t] “It discourages people from running for office,” she said. “It really is a great thing to do.”

Just take it from Mark, who worked as a phone attendant before entering the legislature.

In 2004, he recalls, he was going to work splicing fiber optics to “super-fast service” in Woburn, thinking it “would be nice” if he could access the same thing at his country house. After more than 18 years, the senator-elect got his wish.

With his recent move to Pickett, another recently completed town, Mark said he can finally expect to have the same stable access he helped establish in eastern Massachusetts all those years ago. At home, you no longer have to worry about dropped calls or limited internet service. His car doesn’t have to double as his office. He can finally turn on the camera in Zoom meetings.

Mark said the issue of access remains front and center for local communities and the rural legislators who represent them, and advocate for an equitable distribution of resources statewide.

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

He said that was the reason he was driving. We got to Boston in time for the 9 am meeting.


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