CCTA membership could be town

New Williston route considered by transit agency

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Williston could save money and increase its odds of getting a new bus route by joining the Chittenden County Transportation Authority, officials say.

Chris Cole, CCTA general manager, has corresponded with Williston Town Manager Rick McGuire over the past several months about the possibility of becoming a member of the transit authority. The exchange came after Selectboard members expressed an interest in the idea and asked McGuire to explore the pros and cons of joining.

In an August letter to McGuire, Cole concluded that the town could save about $17,000 a year if it joined CCTA. Williston pays part of the cost of the one CCTA route running through town but it is not represented on the agency’s governing board.

The savings would come primarily from reduced municipal expenses for service required under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Under the federal law, communities that have fixed-route bus service must supplement it with transportation for people with disabilities. Williston now pays for that service with the help of grants. CCTA would pick up part of the tab if the town was a member.

Membership has benefits other than a relatively small savings on Williston’s annual bill for public transportation, which is about $188,000 in the current fiscal year. Members are eligible for bus shelters and benches. They also get to appoint two representatives to CCTA’s governing board, “which is important as the board deliberates where new services are located,” Cole wrote in his letter to McGuire.

New services could wind up being the biggest benefit to Williston. Cole said in an interview that CCTA has discussed adding a route that would run from Williston Village to downtown Burlington. He said CCTA considers the new route a top priority.

It’s unknown how much the route would cost. Tiffany Ward, CCTA’s marketing and public affairs manager, said the price tag could vary according to how many stops buses make and how often they run. Such specifics have yet to be determined.

Cole said Williston does not necessarily have to join to secure the new route – but it wouldn’t hurt, especially with other area towns seeking additional services.

While expressing caution about joining CCTA, McGuire said it may be the key to getting the new route.

“Let’s put it this way: it’s not going to happen if we don’t become a member,” he said.

Town officials have in the past resisted joining CCTA. The transit authority began the current route in 2000 with the help of state and federal grants but no funding from Williston. When the state did not budget money for the route two years later, the town refused to pick up the tab. The state later decided to fund the route after all.

The route, which starts in Essex Junction and makes several stops in Williston before terminating at the University Mall in South Burlington, has been popular. CCTA has recorded double-digit ridership increases in each of the past five years, Cole said. In the 12-month period ending June 30, CCTA tallied 72,528 riders on the Williston route.

Selectboard members in the past complained that most of those riders came from outside of Williston and claimed there was little demand among town residents for the service.

But when outside sources of funding dried up, the board in 2005 decided to help pay for the route after all. Williston’s payments for fixed-route service are based on the same formula used for CCTA members.

Cole said bus service benefits residents even in suburban areas like Williston with many two-car families.

“When there’s a bus route, you don’t have to worry about leaving work early to take the kids to soccer practice,” Cole said. “Your kids can take the bus.”

McGuire said he and two Selectboard members are scheduled to meet with Cole on Sept. 13 at CCTA offices in Burlington. They will learn more about the organization and perhaps get a tour of the facility.

With money already budgeted for the existing route in the 2007-08 fiscal year, McGuire said there is no rush to make a decision on membership.

Joining CCTA would be a big step for Williston, he said. Under the current arrangement, Williston could in any given year elect to discontinue funding for bus service. That may not be the case if the town becomes a CCTA member.

“You’re pretty well committed to funding it year after year,” McGuire said. “It’s a commitment that Williston has to consider very seriously.”