Green Mountain Transit (GMT) is hoping to increase its cash fare and modify bus routes in a series of system-wide changes that include the removal of stops some local students now rely on to get to school.
That’s troubling news to the Essex Westford School District, which has been encouraging high schoolers since late summer to take GMT buses in light of EWSD’s struggle to provide transportation on its own. The push has spurred a 60 percent increase in the Essex Center route’s ridership, according to GMT officials.
Brian Donahue, EWSD chief operating officer, said the spike shows the two stops on GMT’s chopping block have become important pieces to Essex’s public transportation system. It would be a shame then to now move students back off public transportation, he said, especially as the state continues to push more environmentally friendly ways to get around.
“We’re going to be advocacating strongly that they reconsider,” Donahue said of the GMT proposal.
The changes are part of a system-wide proposal arriving on the heels of an 18-month analysis looking at how GMT could increase ridership and provide a more efficient and convenient service, according to company officials.
GMT has scheduled a series of public meetings to inform the public about the changes. The Essex meeting is planned for April 8 at 5:30 p.m. in the village offices. GMT’s board of commissioners, made up of representatives from member communities, including one from Essex, will then vote on the changes April 16.
In Essex, the proposal would change GMT’s three routes that revolve around the Amtrak station on Railroad Avenue, where patrons can board the bus and arrive in downtown Burlington (Route No. 2), Essex Center (Route No. 4) or Taft Corners in Williston (Route No. 10).
GMT proposes combining the latter two routes into a single all-day trip circling the two destinations and the village. As a result, stops near the Essex Free Library and on the corner of Sand Hill and River Road – where some Essex High School students now pick up the bus to go to school – would be eliminated.
Donahue hoped GMT, which started the study nearly two years ago, would recalibrate with the recent ridership spike in mind.
School board member Patrick Murray agreed. He noted the board recently rewrote its transportation policy to say that the district’s youngest students will receive busing first, meaning “there’s a very strong likelihood there are going to be more high school students in this upcoming fall year who are not going have access.”
“The Sand Hill route is going to become extremely critical, in my opinion,” he said.
The selectboard expressed similar feedback Monday night. Selectboard member Irene Wrenner noted the Essex Center bus now serves the Saxon Hill Industrial Park, which continues to bring more workers to the area, and chairman Max Levy reported those businesses want more service, not less.
GMT’s director of transportation Jon Moore said the company looked to trim in areas where ridership doesn’t warrant the service. But he said the bus company has met with businesses in the area, floating the possibility of a financial partnership between some of the bigger employers.
As for the impact on the district, Moore said GMT has met with school officials several times and the bus company hopes to find a way to maintain “some level of service” to River Road and Sandhill Road.
“But [we’re] not sure that’s going to be possible at this time,” Moore said.
If GMT sticks to its original proposal, Donahue said the district will continue to work with the bus company and the municipalities to find alternative transportation methods – perhaps some sort of neighborhood ride system or an alternative Essex Center schedule that centers on school times.
GMT’s proposal will impact nearly all of its current 10 routes, too, including the trip from Essex into Burlington along Route 15, the bus company’s busiest at nearly 450,000 riders a year.
That route now starts at the city’s downtown transit center and runs along Route 15 before turning onto Summit Street prior to arriving at Amtrak. The new route would instead head straight to the village station after stopping at Fort Ethan Allen, cutting out stops at the corner of Summit and West streets and at GlobalFoundries – a detour that represents less than three percent of the route’s ridership, Moore said.
Moore, who lives in the Summit St. area, didn’t expect changes to the Burlington route would negatively impact his neighborhood because he said most who ride the bus to the city already pick it up along Pearl Street to avoid waiting at the Amtrak station.
Plus, the combined route would still make trips to GlobalFoundries. Moore said about 15 people ride the bus to the fab each day.
GMT’s proposal would also change up its current bus schedule. For the Burlington route, this means extending service to the village to 11:30 p.m. on Monday to Saturday and standardizing times from every 20 minutes from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. instead of the 15- and 30-minute peak-dependent intervals under the current schedule. The proposed combined route, meanwhile, would operate hourly and run Saturdays in addition to the existing current weekday schedule.
Smith, the GMT spokeswoman, said the system-wide analysis offered three different options, starting with what’s the current cost-neutral proposal. The two other proposals and their associated cost increases will be looked at under GMT’s upcoming transportation development study, which offers a 5- to 10-year plan for improvements to the bus company’s service. Work on that study begins after the proposed changes go into effect, if approved, Smith said.
Rounding out the proposed changes is a cash fare bump that would set the base rate at $1.50 – 25 cents higher than the current rate set in 2005 – to help GMT address a budget deficit caused by stagnant state and federal funding in the face of continued increases to the cost of doing business, Smith said.
GMT also relies on funding from its member communities; the town will contribute $276,000 under the recently approved fiscal year 2020 budget, a $10,000 increase over the current year.
“The general consensus is now’s the time,” Smith said about the cash fare increase. “Nobody wants to raise fares, of course, but when we’re looking to balance the budget for [fiscal year] 2020, we had to get really creative.”