Brattleboro bus routes, schedules will change

Changes designed to incorporate ‘a lot of really good input’ from Current users

BRATTLEBORO — The Current, the bus line that serves Brattleboro and Hinsdale, N.H., will soon have a new schedule.

Randy Shoonmaker, the CEO of Southeast Vermont Transit, the company that operates The Current, estimated the new route and schedule changes will take effect on Oct. 1.

The transit company is working with a design agency to lay out the new schedule and service map, and Shoonmaker promised they will be much easier to read.

“We're doing everything we can to make them as large and as clear as we can,” he said, noting they will also publish a large-print version.

Once the schedule is complete, SEVT will mail a copy to every address in Brattleboro and West Brattleboro, Shoonmaker said.

Last year, Shoonmaker and a few of his colleagues at SEVT visited the Brattleboro Selectboard to talk about altering the schedule for the three town bus routes: the Red Line, the Blue Line, and the White Line. The visit was part of a study SEVT was conducting with the Agency of Transportation and the help of a consultant to analyze the bus system.

Shoonmaker returned to the Selectboard at their Aug. 21 regular meeting to discuss the study's findings and the changes SEVT will make to The Current in the next few months.

'Really good input'

The study included a great deal of public outreach, Shoonmaker said, “to find out what people wanted in a bus system, what we could change, and what worked well and didn't work well.” SEVT officials met with and surveyed riders, the general public, bus drivers and other SEVT staff, local public servants, and business owners.

“We got a lot of really good input,” said Shoonmaker, who noted, “the folks in Brattleboro are not shy in giving us their opinion, which is good. It's what we wanted.”

“There were really no surprises,” Shoonmaker said, including how confusing the schedule is to many riders.

Some key findings, he said, are that Walmart in Hinsdale and Market 32 (the Canal Street supermarket formerly known as Price Chopper) are important destinations for riders on the Blue Line.

Surveys of Red Line riders indicate the West Brattleboro patrons primarily want to get to Market 32, said Shoonmaker. Unfortunately, this means a transfer to the Blue Line, which means a wait and typically a two-hour bus ride, he said. “It [is] really tough just to go to the market,” he noted.

The White Line connects the downtown with the Retreat and with stops on and near Putney Road. “Hannaford's was the big draw there,” Shoonmaker said.

What he heard “loud and clear” from the survey is that White Line riders wanted earlier service. Right now, that bus begins running at 11:15 a.m.; with the change, it will start at 6:35 a.m.

After collecting the data, SEVT officials created “33 versions of a proposed schedule,” Schoonmaker said. The final schedule that emerged from that process was approved by the SEVT Board of Directors and goes next to the state for their okay, Shoonmaker said.

The new schedule will keep the Blue, Red, and White lines because “people are familiar with the concept,” Shoonmaker said, but there are some notable changes.

The Red Line will run directly from West Brattleboro to Market 32, with no transfer. Shoonmaker described this line as “the most complicated.”

New stops

The Cotton Mill building will get a White Line stop. Shoonmaker said he is trying to develop ridership at the business incubator complex. That bus will also stop at the new housing development, Great River Terrace, on Putney Road. “This will be a great help [...] for the people” living there, he said.

The Blue Line will make scheduled stops at the Winston Prouty Center, Living Memorial Park, and the Brattleboro Music Center, said Shoonmaker. He told The Commons the bus will make those stops along Guilford and Maple streets four or five times daily, with the exact schedule to be determined.

The Blue Line will still not operate on Saturdays, but the White Line will cover those stops.

Main Street's designated stops will be near the entrance to the Congregational Church and the post office parking lot. Shoonmaker said he worked with Town Manager Peter B. Elwell to find good bus stops that allow the vehicle to pull over to collect and discharge passengers while not interfering with parking along the street.

The schedule will have fewer transfers required for traveling to popular destinations, and will run on a more consistent time-table, with each bus taking an hour to make the entire trip.

Shoonmaker gave an example: If the bus arrives at a stop at 10 minutes after the hour, it will stop there at 10 minutes after the hour for the rest of the day. He said they were able to do this by adding and removing stops, and moving some from one line to another.

The changes, he said, “are in response to our surveys. We went out and we asked everybody what they thought, what would help them get to work. We took every one of those comments and twisted something around to make that fit.”

Shoonmaker admitted that “we may have missed one or two, but I think we have a high batting average.”

Help with planning

If members of the public need help reading the new schedule once it's published, Shoonmaker encouraged them to call the SEVT offices. “We'll help people plan their trips,” he said.

The goals of this process, he said, are to better serve riders and the entire community, improve performance, be more efficient with resources, and increase ridership.

The latter, Shoonmaker said, is crucial for maintaining - and possibly increasing - state and federal funding. He told the Board that, other than an occasional 1 to 2 percent raise, The Current has been level-funded for about seven years.

Although funding for The Current allows for 8,700 service hours annually, Shoonmaker told the Selectboard, “we're up to about 9,100 hours of service.” To cover the extra operating costs, SEVT will have to do fundraising, or finance about half of the overage, and the state will pick up the bill for the other half, he said.

“There's not enough money to do everything that everybody wants,” said Shoonmaker, “but we think we've come up with the best we can do to stretch our dollars” and better serve the public, he said.

Shoonmaker acknowledged that Sunday and evening service “is one thing we're lacking,” and survey respondents made it clear they want that.

“If we get more money, we'll add evening service,” he said, “but we just can't stretch it any further.”

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