By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Addison County Transit Resources (ACTR) on April 28 will ask the Middlebury Development Review Board for permission to build a new headquarters off Creek Road to accommodate the organization’s growing bus fleet, which serve the region’s increasing demand for public transportation.
The new, 13,000-square-foot facility would be built on the Vermont Agency of Transportation’s (AOT) District 5 garage property for a cost of around $4.1 million, according to ACTR Executive Director James Moulton. The project would include 8,000 square feet of administrative/operations space split between two stories, and a 5,000-square-foot maintenance bay area that would allow up to six vehicles at a time to be stored, serviced and washed.
“It’s been an incredible growth cycle, fueled by people’s needs and demand,” Moulton said of his organization and its services, established 15 years ago.
ACTR currently operates out of 1,000 square feet of rented space in Addison County Community Action Group’s (ACCAG) Community Services Center off Boardman Street. Moulton explained that ACTR must park most of its 13 vehicles off-site, on the edge of a field loaned by the Foster Brothers Farm.
The current office space must be shared by nine staffers, 12 paid drivers and around 30 volunteer drivers.
“It makes it very difficult,” Moulton said. “I think we have done the best we can with what we have, but having our own facility would make a lot of difference, in terms of our ability to be even more efficient with resources.”
ACTR offers — or collaborates in — five local and regional public transportation routes, bus services that operate within Middlebury; between Bristol, Vergennes and Middlebury; between Middlebury and the Middlebury College Snow Bowl in Hancock, between Addison County and Burlington, and between Addison County and Rutland.
Riders pay a $3 fare for the Chittenden County service and $2 for the Rutland County bus. The in-county shuttle service is free.
The organization also has a corps of volunteer drivers who give individual rides to income-eligible people who need transportation to doctor’s appointments and other essential services.
Officials anticipate ACTR will provide a combined total of 127,000 rides this fiscal year, which ends on June 30. That’s almost double the 68,000 rides the agency delivered during fiscal year 2002.
“The demand, overall, for services is really starting to explode,” Moulton said. “We get calls and e-mails every week asking for more services.”
Surging gasoline prices are a big reason for the surge in demand, he said.
“People will call us or e-mail us and ask for information about those (commuter) routes and say, ‘I can’t afford to commute anymore,’” Moulton said. “We’re also now … hearing from employers contacting us first, saying ‘Our employees are really concerned about gas prices, what services do you offer — or could you offer?’”
Moulton noted that ACTR, a few years ago, applied to the AOT for permission to provide commuter service between Addison County and New York state across the Crown Point Bridge. The service never got off the ground, but with soaring prices at the pump there are now new calls for it and other new routes to be established.
“We have a lot of people working here come over the bridge, and it’s hard for them to make ends meet now,” Moulton said.
“People are having to make hard choices,” he added. “I think there are a lot people getting into situations where what used to be affordable for them no longer is. More people, I think, are becoming transit-dependent. They either can’t afford the fuel or a second car and they need alternative ways to get to and from work, or the other places they need to go. We are an affordable solution for them.”
ACTR officials believe now is the right time to seek larger facilities to meet the growing demand for public transportation in the region. They believe the organization could save substantial money over the long haul by having its own headquarters. There would be no rent, and ACTR would have the space to service and maintain its own vehicles.
“It is very expensive to have work done on vehicles by third parties,” Moulton said.
The AOT has offered to donate the approximately four acres off Creek Road that ACTR needs for its new facility. That means no property acquisition costs and the opportunity for ACTR and the AOT to collaborate on resources.
“It would fit in nicely with Middlebury,” ACTR board member Dean George said of the project design and Creek Road spot. “It’s a good location for getting service out.”
“(The AOT) has no plans to use that space … so they are willing to make that available to us,” Moulton said. “It makes the project more likely to receive the kind of funding necessary to make it happen.”
Officials said they will seek the bulk of project funding — around $3.3 million — through a federal appropriation. Vermont’s lawmakers in Washington, D.C., have already been informed of the request, which will be made in the fiscal year 2009 federal budget, which begins Oct. 1.
ACTR officials said they realize their financial request will have to be weighed with others during a slowing economy.
“It’s so hard to read what will or won’t happen at the federal level,” Moulton said. “We have to be optimistic.”
Moulton explained the remaining 20 percent of project costs — roughly $800,000 — would have to be raised through a local fund-raising campaign. If a federal grant seems unlikely, ACTR would have to weigh what kind of a facility it could pursue with more limited resources.
Local fund-raising will be able to start if and when the Middlebury Development Review Board approves the project, according to Moulton.
He hopes the community realizes ACTR’s need to grow.
“We now need to go to the next stage,” Moulton said.