By Michelle A.L. Singer
Green Mountain Transit is considering the creation of a dedicated “paratransit” van service as part of its NextGen Transit plan, which also aims to increase route efficiency and improve customer service.
Community-wide discussions are ongoing for proposed changes to key local bus routes, including the Montpelier Circulator, Barre Hospital Hill, Montpelier Hospital Hill, and City Commuter routes. The plan offers a number of recommendations for improving efficiency and service, which could be implemented as soon as March 2019.
Green Mountain Transit’s current Paratransit/ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) service allows deviations from the bus route within three-quarters of a mile on either side. People wanting to use the service must schedule it 24 hours in advance, and in order for buses to keep on schedule, a maximum of two deviations is allowed per trip. According to Daniel Currier, program manager for the Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission, which works closely with Green Mountain Transit, “There’s some time that’s been added to the schedule to allow for these deviations, but it can still throw the bus off by quite a bit. We also don’t have a very good way of notifying people if the bus is arriving late.”
As part of the NextGen planning process, Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates, a national consulting firm specializing in transportation systems, mobility, and transit analysis, looked at all the routes in Central Vermont. They advised that GMT could make routes more efficient if, instead of offering deviations to the route, they provided a separate, on-demand, paratransit service, allowing buses to remain on their routes. Jordan Posner of GMT adds that with all routes, “Federal laws would be adhered to and accommodations currently offered for lift-equipped transportation would still be offered when needed.”
Paratransit would be a door-to-destination service. “Depending on the number of people who need to be picked up,” says Currier, “GMT would link up the rides with what’s available in the fleet, which could be a car or a van, and deploy.”
The new service would also require an application for eligibility, and requests for rides would need to be made 24 hours in advance. “I think we’re looking at way over 1,000 people a year who might ultimately take advantage of the service,” says Currier. He also notes that as the population ages, this plan is a way to get ahead of possible burdens on the public transit system.
Organizations that work with older adults and people with disabilities in the community immediately recognized the need to collect feedback and provide education around the proposed changes. The Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission, the Vermont Center for Independent Living, the Central Vermont Council on Aging, Project Independence, and the Agency of Transportation got together and identified a grant to conduct a planning study. They have designed an input survey and, based on responses, will prepare an outline of what the paratransit changes would look like. They wanted to have “a process that would be heavy on engagement and inclusiveness, inside a population that can potentially use the service,” says Currier. To participate in the survey visit centralvtplanning.org.
One issue they will look at is overlap with other local services. Green Mountain Transit offers transportation services for adults who are disabled, over 60 years old, or both, through programs such as Ticket to Ride, the State of Vermont Elderly and Disabled grant, which 300 people took advantage of since July of this year. Rides are provided through volunteer drivers and, according to Currier, the volunteer driver pool is very low. “The population of volunteers is aging and eventually there will be no one to fill their seats. Many of the volunteer drivers would qualify for the service themselves,” he says.
With the implementation of paratransit, older adults and people with disabilities who are eligible will be able to take advantage of the new service as well as overlapping programs, but the people who used the deviation service who are not eligible would lose that service. “The question becomes who gets left at the curb? Some people who use the deviation may not qualify for paratransit,” says Currier.
However, GMT also has plans to make changes to its routes that will benefit all riders. They are considering increasing the frequency of the Barre Hospital Hill and Montpelier Hospital Hill routes, adding bus service to Barre, as well as adjusting other schedules to run more efficiently. The hope is that commuters will find bus service dependable and consistent.
Dale Hackett lives in Barre and uses all three of the routes that will be impacted by the proposed changes. He is visually and hearing impaired and would qualify for the paratransit services. He says he’s interested and excited about the idea of paratransit, “if it works and is reliable.” He worries that there won’t “be enough people to get you where you’re going on time” and there will be a learning curve for getting the logistics worked out. “I need to see it functioning,” he says.
Hackett says he’s lucky that most of the places he needs to get to are accessible on bus routes. “I don’t have many places off route that I go to.” However, if he’s going to the doctor’s office, for instance, and the road from the bus stop to the office isn’t safe, a paratransit service “would be very useful,” he says. “Whether or not there are sidewalks could be a huge factor.” Each person would take into consideration their needs, the location they are going to, and other factors such as how busy a bus route might be. “People with hearing or vision impairments might end up using paratransit and feeling better about it.”
Community members can stay informed about the results from the input survey at two public meetings in December—one in Montpelier and one in Barre. Visit GMT’s website at ridegmt.com for updates on changes to the bus service, and the Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission’s website at centralvtplanning.org for updates on the paratransit service outline and survey results.