ACTR bus ridership continues to surge
ADDISON COUNTY — On the corner of South Pleasant and Cross streets on a sunny Monday afternoon, buses fly by, one after the next. Blazoned with the blue, green and gold trademark symbol, all 21 belong to Addison County Transit Resources, known as ACTR.
The symbol has become a steadfast part of Addison County’s community as the bus fleet has grown, routes have expanded and ridership, in the last decade, has increased by 194 percent, according to a recent study by the American Public Transportation Association.
“It’s pretty convenient,” said Ben Taylor, a rider and Middlebury resident waiting for the bus on South Pleasant Street that day. “It’s always easy, and the bus drivers are nice.”
For those reasons, Taylor said he’d recommend the bus system to someone who hadn’t tried it before.
In fiscal year 2017 ACTR provided 116,879 bus rides and 58,110 Dial-a-Ride rides for a total of 174,989. This past August it provided its 2 millionth ride in the 23-year history of the company.
ACTR’s ridership has grown despite the fact that it serves an aging population based in a rural area. The organization’s regional director, Bill Cunningham, attributes the ridership growth to the figurative ear ACTR staff has kept glued to the ground.
“We are reacting to cultural and demographic changes, whatever they may be. We try to anticipate them, and we also do surveys,” he said. “The state of Vermont has metrics, and we’ve been able to meet or exceed most of those metrics — when we’re not, we have to reevaluate and redistribute.”
Mary-Claire Crogan, ACTR’s full-time community relations manager since 2011, conducts a yearly survey and hosts feedback meetings, where members of the public can weigh in on proposed routes and unmet demand.
To meet the needs of passengers, ACTR continuously evaluates and updates its six routes: The In-town (Middlebury) and Tri-Town (Middlebury, Vergennes and Bristol) Shuttles, the Snow Bowl Shuttle, the Route 116 Commuter (Burlington), the Rutland Connector and the Burlington Link. Last year, the bus company narrowed the wait between buses traveling from Middlebury to Bristol and Vergennes, and has seen 22 percent growth in ridership on buses to Bristol, and almost the same for Vergennes, since the changes were made.
Drivers even alter their routes on a daily basis, driving up to a half-mile out of the way for anyone who can’t make it to the bus stop. Until 2015, drivers carried handheld cell phones, requiring them to pull out of traffic each time they received or dialed a call. Now, two-way radios make it possible for ACTR personnel to update drivers about passengers’ whereabouts.
“It provides expanded access to rural residences,” Crogan said. “That’s given (riders) more flexibility to catch us on the fly. We’ve picked up a lot of extra ridership that way, too.”
Those who wish to have one of the shuttles diverted up to a half-mile (a quarter-mile for Rutland Connector and the Saturday Burlington LINK buses) can call ACTR to make arrangements at 388-ACTR (399-2287). ACTR asks that those wishing pickup at a deviation to the rout or a Request Only Bus Stop please call at least one business day (24 hours) in advance, or on Fridays for a Monday pick up. ACTR dispatch staff is available by phone between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday-Friday.
And other types of technology have contributed to growth. Infrastructure improvements, including moving to a 12,500-square-foot, $4.3 million building on Creek Road in 2013, have given the company a stronger base of operations and kept the buses more reliably on the road.
“We’re able to maintain (buses) here — they’re not across town waiting to be serviced,” Crogan said.
In 2015, ACTR redesigned its website so that it interacts better with mobile devices. And right now, several apps, including “Where’s My Bus,” “Route Shout,” and two others in southern Vermont, are being piloted around the state. If these applications are implemented, riders would be able to see exactly where on the route their buses are located.
All of these changes have come in only two and a half decades — ACTR celebrated its 25th anniversary in September. The company started in 1992 as a taxi system for seniors, but has expanded its demographics so much that college students fill the Snow Bowl buses, which run seven days a week during ski season.
“When you grow up in Boston, you grow up with public transit. When you grow up in Middlebury, Vermont, it’s not part of how you get around. It’s a culture change, and it takes time,” Cunningham said. “We drive through lots of neighborhoods, and people watch the buses go by. Whatever hesitation they might have, they should just give it a shot.”
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