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If they bus it, will funds come?

Public transit plan for West River Valley inches forward

BRATTLEBORO—Like rush-hour traffic in a congested downtown, the plans to implement public bus service along the West River are slowly inching forward.

Planners have found the need is there, but the question is, will the funding follow?

Earlier this year, planners from local, regional, and state organizations held a series of public meetings to help them gauge the level of need and interest among people living, studying, and working along Route 30.

One of those organizations, the Windham Regional Commission (WRC), received a grant from the Jeffords Center to assess all transit service in the region, said WRC Senior Planner Matt Mann. The grant also funded outreach, Mann said.

In addition, Mann, who serves on the board of the Southeast Vermont Transit Association, said he worked with Connecticut River Transit on obtaining a planning grant with the Vermont Agency of Transportation (AOT) to study the feasibility of a fixed-route bus line on the West River corridor.

Part of the study was looking at existing public and private buses and vans, such as those serving the Connecticut River Transit line (also known as The Current), the Bellows Falls Senior Center, Vernon’s recreation department, the Bellows Falls YMCA, Marlboro College, and World Learning.

Mann said the WRC’s research included sending out a public survey, from which they received about 120 responses. “Some were from Jamaica,” Mann said, noting that even that far up Route 30, there is support for public transit.

From these studies, and from “some in-house data analysis,” Mann said the WRC came to the conclusion “there’s enough needs-based transit needs in the region.” He added the “top recommendation” of the Jeffords Center-funded study was, Route 30 needs a bus line.

“Route 30 is the only major corridor not served by a fixed-route transit,” Mann said.

The proposed bus line would serve a variety of riders — and it would need to, in order to support its operation. “’Coordinated’ is the best model of efficiency for transit lines,” Mann said. “You want youth, the disabled, the elderly, people on Medicaid, and the general population” on the bus, he said, because “that helps spread out who is paying for it."

“Year-round, you need a diverse population of riders,” he said.

Mann said students, the older adults, and those seeking medical services are among the larger groups in need of public transportation.

“Youth Services did a study,” Mann said, and they found “the top issue for youth in the area is transportation."

Mann gave The Gathering Place as another example of need.

The Brattleboro adult daycare center provides programs for elders and adults with disabilities. Mann said they currently contract with Connecticut River Transit to bring their clients to the facility from their homes along Route 30 as far as Townsend.

The challenge, Mann said, is “how to make [the bus route] as efficient and cost-effective as possible."

One way Mann said he hopes to fund the eventual Route 30 bus line is through a Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) Program grant from the Federal Highway Administration. He said the CMAQ grant will provide 80 percent of the funding for new bus routes.

But, CMAQ requires a 20 percent local match, up-front.

“We’re almost done with the planning,” Mann said, which includes “looking for the 20 percent local match.” Next spring and summer, if WRC can find that match, Mann said they will apply for the CMAQ grant.

Finding the local match may require a shift in thinking about transportation and who is paying for it, and how.

“Vermont is the second-highest state in per-capita spending on transportation,” Mann said, noting the state is second only to California in that regard.

“Everyone’s driving,” he said, which requires “a lot of infrastructure to get into rural areas.”

“I think there would be a sustained level of ridership on a daily basis” on the Route 30 bus, Mann said, adding, “the need is there."

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Originally published in The Commons issue #330 (Wednesday, November 4, 2015). This story appeared on page E1.

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