By J.B. Mack and Mari Brunner
The Monadnock Alliance for Sustainable Transportation (MAST), a decade old coalition aimed at fostering more progressive transportation decision making in Southwest New Hampshire, was born out of a debate about what transportation investments were best for state highways passing through the City of Keene. It was 1999 when the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (NHDOT) released recommendations to construct a Keene bypass system that included new grade separated interchanges, widened roads, and the construction of a new limited access road to accommodate anticipated growth. Local residents’ reaction to the proposal was swift and strong. NHDOT’s proposed transportation improvements, many residents argued, would irrevocably change the small town feel of Keene and the region itself.
After several years of debate and an eventual out-of-court settlement in 2004 between NHDOT and the Conservation Law Foundation over a wetlands permit associated with the proposed bypass project, an agreement was reached in which transportation improvements would be constructed on an incremental basis as traffic congestion materialized. In addition, the agreement formed a body tasked with helping Keene and surrounding towns ensure better transportation planning and decision making occur in the future. That group is now called MAST.
Although MAST first focused its attentions on mitigating traffic congestion, it quickly realized that a larger concern for area stakeholders is the lack of transportation alternatives in the region. Employers reported that additional transportation options were important for attracting and retaining employees. Service agencies observed that transportation alternatives would make it easier for clients, many of whom could not drive, to get to appointments. Others noted that additional transportation options would help communities reach their emissions reduction goals, improve health by promoting physical activity, and increase safety for children who walk or bike to school.
Recognizing the broad support for its mission, MAST set itself up as a coalition focused on one central goal: to increase use and availability of local and regional transportation options in the Monadnock Region. Supporting the goal are a list of objectives to achieve a more diversified transportation system. Most of the objectives focus on expanding the use and availability of different kinds of transportation infrastructure or programming such as sidewalks, bike paths, public transportation, ridesharing, carsharing and intercity bus services. In addition, there is an objective to implement non-transportation strategies to replace vehicle trips such as the expansion of broadband to improve work at home, telehealth, online education and other similar opportunities. Another objective calls for improved land use planning so that housing, shopping and work destinations are situated close to one another to improve accessibility, affordability and have less impact on the environment.
As a coalition that operates similar to a non-profit, MAST does not have an operating budget. It is a grassroots effort entirely supported by volunteers and organizations. Implementation activities, such as the construction of new sidewalks and bike paths or the enhancement of transit services, are performed by coalition partners such as towns and cities. Other partners provide MAST operating support for its meetings and events. Partner agencies volunteer to act as fiscal agents to administer grant funds that MAST receives.
Due to its volunteer nature, most of MAST’s work is focused on education and advocacy. Educational resources are delivered to stakeholders in person at meetings and events as well as through its Facebook page and its website. The website itself contains curriculum materials for local educators, along with alternative transportation resources for citizens, municipalities, and employers.
One of MAST’s educational goals is to raise awareness about the high cost of transportation and the burden it places on households in the region. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2015 Consumer Expenditure Survey, transportation is the second most expensive household expenditure after housing. On average, households spend 15% of their income on vehicle expenses including fuel, tires, maintenance, insurance and registration fees. Lower income households are disproportionately impacted by transportation. The same data set shows that the 20% lowest income households spend 29% of their income on vehicle expenses. Given this information, MAST believes it raises an important question about how the cost of transportation is affecting consumer spending and economic mobility.
Another educational focus of MAST is sharing information about the Monadnock Region’s changing demographics. Like most of New Hampshire, the Monadnock Region is anticipated to face a rapidly aging population. Between 2015 and 2040, the region’s population that is 65 and older is projected to increase by 65%, more rapidly than any other age group. The demographic shift will have significant implications for transportation. According to the two most recent Federal Highway Administration’s National Highway Travel Surveys, the percentage of people age 65 and older that do not drive has remained consistent at 21% of that population. By 2040, that could mean the region will have over 5,600 senior non-drivers, one of the effects of an aging population that has been described by the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies as a “silver tsunami.”
In addition to educating the public, MAST has implemented numerous advocacy campaigns. Every two years, MAST provides testimony to NHDOT at its Ten Year Transportation Improvement Plan hearings about the merits of investing in a diversified transportation system. On a routine basis, it provides letters of support for municipal grant applications to improve local transportation systems. Other advocacy activities have focused on a particular challenge or opportunity. For example, when Greyhound Lines, Inc. signaled that it was considering pulling bus service from Keene, MAST partners including local elected officials, local universities and the Greater Keene Chamber of Commerce worked together to advocate for continued intercity bus service. Though MAST is not due all the credit for its change of heart, Greyhound not only decided to keep its service intact, but it later created a new bus route with direct service to Nashua and Boston.
One of MAST’s more successful initiatives is “Rack it Up!,” a program that provides free or subsidized bicycle racks to businesses, non-profits, community institutions, and others. This program was envisioned as a way to reach out to area businesses and encourage them to become more “bicycle friendly.” Rack it Up! started in 2014 as a 50% cost-sharing program funded by the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, and it has expanded in recent years due to funding from the Partnerships to Improve Community Health (PICH) initiative. To date, a total of 219 “inverted-U” style bike racks have been provided to businesses and other organizations in four communities, with plans to expand to an additional four communities in 2017.
The Monadnock Region has achieved a great deal of accomplishments over the past decade. The Region continues to grow and improve the connectivity of its sidewalk network and bicycle path system. Public transit and private intercity bus services have expanded. New broadband infrastructure now winds its way through previously underserved communities. Riding the wave of progress, MAST will continue to make its contribution to the region’s success—by ensuring that the transportation system plays a meaningful role in addressing the Monadnock Region’s quality of life.
J. B. Mack is Principal Planner and Mari Brunner is a Planner with the Southwest Region Planning Commission. J.B. can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and Mari at email@example.com. Both can be reached by phone at 603.357.0557.
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