The War Memorial Tower on the summit of Mt Greylock in Adams. Western Massachusetts’ stunning natural beauty belies the region’s crumbling, underfunded infrastructure, a new report from State Auditor Suzanne Bump says.

Why does it take a report by State Auditor Suzanne Bump to bring attention to one of the biggest long-term challenges facing our state: the ever-growing gap in infrastructure, wealth and economic prospects between the booming eastern part of our state and Western Massachusetts? 

Bump’s report focuses on public infrastructure, and it’s not a pretty picture. Sluggish broadband, crumbling roads and bridges and public buildings that are barely habitable. 

In one little Western Massachusetts town, the police operate out the basement of Town Hall. Emergency medical services respond to calls out of an old gas station building, while firefighters have to deal with cement dropping from the ceiling, according to Bump’s report. 

Scenic parts like the Berkshires may be major tourist draws but the region itself, and the small towns and the struggling post-industrial cities that dot it, simply aren’t producing enough property tax income to keep up. 

Conditions a Threat to Business 

Check any key statistic, and Western Massachusetts has seen declines, often very significant ones, over the past decade, including population, school enrollment, labor force and property values. 

Of course, not everything is going down: the average age of the population in Western Massachusetts rising steadily, along with the number of bridges labeled in “poor condition,” which, at over 9 percent, is significantly higher than the state average. 

Crumbling public infrastructure and sluggish broadband, in turn, has hampered efforts to reinvent and reinvigorate the economy of Western Massachusetts. 

These, in turn, are all major deterrents to businesses, especially the professional services and tech firms that drive the modern economy. 

Western Mass. has much to offer in quality of life and more reasonably priced homes. But if you can’t get online, and long drives down rural roads in winter or inclement weather are made even more treacherous by closed bridges and deteriorating pavement, then, if you are a business owner, you aren’t taking that chance and moving your there. 

Split Is Bigger than East-West  

Let’s get real here, though, the divide we are talking about is far more than just east and west. 

It’s far deeper and broader than that, for it’s a divide, and a gaping one at that, between Greater Boston, defined as everything inside the Interstate 495 beltway, and the rest of our supposed commonwealth. 

Inside I-495 is where you find most of the high-paying tech and biotech jobs, influx of highly paid professionals, and the soaring real estate values where $1 million dollar fixer-uppers, once a shocker, are now all too common. Outside that highway? Not so much. 

The gap between Greater Boston and the rest of the state is a microcosm of what has happened across the United States over the past 40 years, with a select number of resurgent metro hubs, from New York to Seattle, sucking in the jobs, the wealth and the upwardly mobile, while too-old factory towns and rural communities face ever more diminishing prospects. 

As in the rest of the country, the economic divide in Massachusetts also correlates with a political divide, with the deep blue counties of Greater Boston in stark contrast to the rest of the state, with the few dozen communities that Trump managed to win all concentrated in the industrial and rural hinterlands of Western, Central and Southeastern Massachusetts. 

The formula the state uses to distribute transportation dollars has exacerbated this divide, according to Bump’s report, with Western Mass. facing a $75 million-a-year funding gap between what it needs to maintain its roads and what it actually gets. 

Bump wants to shift the funding formula to put more emphasis on total miles of roadways – which Western Mass. has a lot more of – while giving less weight to population, which the region has less of. 

Leadership Can Help 

But Western Massachusetts – and for that matter the rest of the state beyond 495 – needs more than changes to a state transportation funding formula. 

The region also needs more political champions on the state level, and more attention from the region’s few remaining serious news outlets – here’s looking at you, Boston Globe – though our two public radio stations could certainly pick up some of the slack as well. 

Western Mass. lost clout that’s hard to replace when Stan Rosenberg, the former Senate president from Amherst, was forced to step down in 2018 in the wake of a sexual abuse scandal involving his then-husband. 

Bump, the state auditor who hails from Great Barrington, has the potential to be a “powerful advocate” for the region, writes Bruce Mohl, editor of CommonWealth Magazine. 

However, getting the media heavy hitters to pay serious attention to the challenges facing everyone beyond 495 may prove to be taller order than the regeneration of the region’s political leadership. 

Scott Van Voorhis

Bump’s report got fairly modest play in the Globe, though a I guess a 900-word story is nothing to sneeze at these days. So far, none of the paper’s columnists have weighed in, and I really doubt they will. 

For a paper that doesn’t flinch from taking on our society’s many inequities, here’s one right under the proverbial nose that could use some serious attention. 

So, here’s a modest suggestion: Instead heading to Pennsylvania or the Midwest in search of workers embittered and left behind by our top-heavy, winner-takes-all, economy, take a drive through Winchendon, where the factories that once made it Toy Town closed decades ago, or Athol, Orange, Holyoke or Springfield. 

It’s not a terribly long drive, distance-wise, but in terms of economic prospects and life chances, it’s a world away. 

Scott Van Voorhis is Banker & Tradesman’s columnist; opinions expressed are his own. He may be reached at   

Western Mass. Needs Champions in the Globe, State House

by Scott Van Voorhis time to read: 4 min