Grant to fund new bus service (10/22/09)

U.S. 2 route will stop in Williston Village

Oct. 22, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Buses will soon link Williston Village to downtown Burlington, thanks to a federal grant announced last week.

The Chittenden County Transit Authority will receive just under $2.1 million to fund expanded bus service in Williston and a new route to Milton over the next three years. The money is part of a larger $3.9 million Federal Transit Administration grant that will pay for public transportation projects around the state.

CCTA several years ago identified as a priority a direct route along U.S. 2 from Burlington to Williston. Currently, riders must transfer at the University Mall in South Burlington before continuing on to Burlington.

“The lack of a single and direct bus route along Route 2 creates a ‘hole’ in the CCTA system,” the grant application stated. “Without direct, efficient and practical bus service along Route 2, a large market of potential riders will continue to be lost.”

Details of the new Williston route have yet to be finalized and are subject to approval by the transit agency’s governing board.

But Meredith Birkett, CCTA planning manager, said the plans call for the route to extend into Williston Village during commute hours. The tentative schedule includes two morning and two afternoon weekday runs into the village. Service frequency will increase around Taft Corners, reducing wait time for passengers to no more than 15 minutes during commute hours.

The existing route circles commercial areas of Williston before heading to either South Burlington or Essex Junction. The new route will trace a nearly straight line down U.S. 2, but buses will continue to stop at Wal-Mart and the University Mall.

The route will replace the current Williston and University Mall/airport bus lines, the grant application said. CCTA plans to use money spent on those routes to instead create “feeder” buses serving South Burlington and the airport, and to provide an Essex Junction connection.

“It is more than adding service to what’s already there,” Birkett said. “It is a route redesign.”

Williston has for several years helped fund bus routes. But last year the town’s Selectboard decided to officially join as a member town, giving Williston two votes on CCTA’s 14-member Board of Commissioners. Jim McCullough, one of the representatives, said he has taken an “almost passive” approach to advocating for better bus service, realizing that funding was in short supply.

“I’d love to tell you I went down there and banged my shoe on the table,” McCullough joked.

When McCullough was appointed, he said he hoped CCTA could add service to the village that also looped through residential areas along Mountain View and North Williston roads.

It is unlikely that those stops would be added to the new route, he said, because more stops means longer travel time to Burlington and higher expenses.

Al Turgeon, the town’s other CCTA board member, said he has advocated for service into the village by pointing out that Williston — unlike other member communities — did not have service to the center of town. He also said he’s  “appalled” at the lack of sheltered bus stops in Williston and will continue to push for them.

Towns served by CCTA buses are assessed a yearly levy based on level of service. Williston will pay $158,260 in the current fiscal year.

The grant requires a 20 percent local match, which will come from money provided by member towns. Matching funding, however, will not be drawn solely from Williston’s assessment, Birkett said. Town assessments are pooled and used to fund CCTA’s entire budget.

“We don’t say this is a Milton dollar and this is a Williston dollar,” Birkett said.

The grant falls $150,000 short of completely funding the U.S. 2 route, Turgeon said. That raises questions about whether CCTA will be able to carry out all its plans.

Chris Cole, CCTA general manager, said routes could be altered or other grants secured to cover the shortfall. But in any case, he said, Williston will not be asked for more money beyond its annual assessment.

The federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program that funds the grant is aimed at reducing traffic and hence pollution, said Dave Pelletier, public transit administrator for the Vermont Agency of Transportation, which distributed the money.

“The idea is basically to take single-occupancy cars off the road,” he said.

The Milton route can be added relatively quickly, but establishing the new Williston service will take longer because of the complexity of making other routes dovetail with it, Birkett said.

CCTA plans to hold public hearings over the next few months to gather input on when and where buses should stop. Birkett said CCTA hopes to launch the U.S. 2 route in the first half of 2010.

Turgeon said it has taken so long to streamline and expand bus service in Williston because CCTA has more demand for service than funding.

“It’s limited resources,” he said. “The bottom line is there is just not enough money to put a (bus) system out there where everybody wants it.”