Williston reps hop aboard CCTA

 Expectations low for more bus service

July 31, 2008
By Greg Elias
Observer staff 

Williston was represented for the first time when the Chittenden County Transit Authority's governing board met Wednesday afternoon. But with CCTA coping with a budget crunch due to rising fuel costs, board membership may not bring better bus service to town.

In theory, having two seats on the 14-member Board of Commissioners increases Williston's chances for additional service beyond the one route that serves Taft Corners and Vermont 2A.

New members Jim McCullough and Al Turgeon, however, don't expect to win immediate service improvements. They are well aware of the agency's recent decision to cut service and increase fares.

“Any of us who walk in with all sorts of great ideas will probably find that it's not easy to do anything,” Turgeon said.

Milton is also gaining a pair of board seats, which are given to communities who become members of CCTA and commit to funding service. The town of Williston spent $188,000 for bus service during the last fiscal year.

When they were appointed by the Williston Selectboard this spring, Turgeon and McCullough said they wanted to add another route in Williston. McCullough said service was needed to the town's senior housing developments; Turgeon suggested a line that would have stops along U.S. 2 as well as North Williston and Mountain View roads.

But CCTA's budget has been hit by rising fuel prices. The transit authority announced last week that it was reducing service along two Burlington routes and raising fares for the Middlebury shuttle. More route reductions or fare hikes could be in the offing if the state does not provide additional funding to offset rising fuel prices, said Chris Cole, CCTA's general manager.

Fuel spending is projected to increase 85 percent in fiscal year 2008-09 while unrestricted state funding for the same period rises by just 1 percent, Cole said.

“So you can see there is a rather large gap in the revenue coming in and the expenses going out,” he said. “If the gap doesn't close, we won't have any options.”

After being appointed to the CCTA board in May, both McCullough and Turgeon solicited Williston residents' opinions about public transportation. Unsurprisingly, people wanted more bus service.

McCullough said some seconded his suggestion of improved service for seniors, particular to those living in Williston Woods on the northeast side of town. He's also heard that the existing bus would be more attractive if it didn't take riders so long to reach their destinations.

The Williston route forces riders to transfer at the University Mall in South Burlington to reach downtown Burlington. The route also runs the other direction toward Essex Junction, but again requires a transfer for further travel.

After talking to neighbors, family and friends, Turgeon concluded that it will be tough to get people out of their vehicles and into buses and other forms of alternative transportation.

“A rural setting doesn't lend itself to easy solutions,” he said. “No matter what you come up with, replacing the automobile isn't that easy.”

CCTA gets 49 percent of its funding from the state and federal government, Cole said. The remaining revenue comes from member towns and fares paid by passengers.

There appears to be no inexpensive way to improve service in Williston.

Adding stops on the existing Williston route is problematic. Cole said buses operate on 30-minute cycles, so additional stops would throw off a schedule geared toward buses converging around the same time at the terminal on Cherry Street in Burlington.

An entirely new route costs about $450,000, Cole said, and would require additional state or federal funding.

There is some hope for improved service in Williston, albeit indirectly. CCTA is applying for a state grant that will fund an additional route in South Burlington. Cole said the Williston route could then run straight down U.S. 2 so riders no longer have to transfer at the University Mall.

McCullough, a Democrat running for re-election to the Vermont House of Representatives, said residents should practice self-reliance rather than depend on Williston's new board members to single-handedly fix transportation problems. He said people can organize carpools, buy more fuel-efficient vehicles or simply live closer to their jobs.

“The answer is you have got to do things for yourself a lot,” he said. “I'm right there with a lot of conservative people in saying that government isn't going to do everything for you.”