By Lisa Loomis
The Short Range Transit Plan for the Mad River Valley was adopted in July 1998. The result of six to eight months worth of work, meetings, surveys and data collection, the plan called for parlaying money currently being spent on lodging and ski shuttles, transporting seniors to meal sites, and a locally run Warren to Waitsfield shuttle into one Valley-wide system.
Organizers projected that the system would carry 100,000 one-way trips during its first year and that ridership would increase to 150,000 trips in later years. Over the first five years, the transit plan called for the purchase of 10 vehicles, the construction of bus shelters and signs, and the construction of a storage and maintenance facility at a cost of approximately $2.4 million (in 1998 dollars).
The funding distribution envisioned for the first three years included $1.8 million from the federal government, $127,500 from the state and $322,500 from local funds and fares.
"The local funds will come from local businesses via contract and will require no local taxes," the plan reports.
Critically, this new transit system was designed to be responsive to local demands and needs. "Wheels should operate the new system with oversight and guidance provided by the Wheels board, by an ongoing Valley advisory committee under the jurisdiction of the Mad River Valley Planning District and the Vermont Agency of Transportation," the plan writers noted.
Sometime between the implementation of this short-range plan, which did result in year-round service, briefly, and now, local planners and transportation organizers lost their ability to direct the service provided to The Valley. Currently service is provided by the Green Mountain Transit Authority, GMTA, through the Chittenden County Transportation Authority. The 1998 service included a Valley to Montpelier link as well as airport service. CCTA/GMTA took over operation of the local system in 2003.
NO COMMUTER SERVICE
Today, service is provided only during the winter and there is no commuter service linking The Valley to Montpelier/Barre and Waterbury or the airport. The cost of today's seasonal service is approximately $350,000. Sugarbush and The Valley towns pay $67,500 and $9,440, respectively, for that service while federal and state grants make up the balance. The 1998 year-round service cost an estimated $350,000 which, adjusted upwards for inflation, would cost $450,566, excluding the steep increases in fuel prices.
GMTA operations supervisor Aaron Little said that the last time GMTA estimated the cost of year-round commuter service, with two morning and two evening runs from The Valley to Montpelier, the cost came in at $130,000 -- which, he said, would need to be updated with current operating costs. GMTA has twice requested funding from the Vermont Legislature to add commuter routes from The Valley but has received none to date.
FOUR FIXED ROUTES
The 1998 plan started with the services that existed for the 1997-1998 ski season, which included four fixed routes. Sugarbush operated a lodging shuttle connecting resort condos and lodging facilities as well as non-resort properties. Passengers were transported regardless of where they were staying. Service was provided every half hour to the slopes between 8 a.m. and 11:50 a.m. with return trips scheduled through 5 p.m.
There were two routes that operated on the weekdays between December and March, as well as April weekends. These routes served the condos in Sugarbush Village, the Sugarbush Access Road and the Inferno Road. On weekends, an additional route served the PowderHound and connected to the Sugarbush Shuttle, operated under contract for the Mad River Valley Planning District. The third route was a shuttle connecting Sugarbush's base lodges and the fourth route was operated by Wheels under contract with the Mad River Valley Planning District. It ran between the PowderHound and Irasville/Waitsfield, with stops at the school and General Wait House, providing service between 10:30 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Ridership for all routes for the 1997-1998 season was estimated at 40,000 trips in the transit plan and, while Sugarbush did not have a separate cost allocation for its transit services, it was estimated that the total fixed route costs were $92,000 in 1997-1998. Wheels also operated paratransit service for seniors at an annual cost of $20,000. Additionally, Wheels was offering taxi/van and shuttle service to the airport, train stations and bus stations.
Ridership for the first three months of the 2007-2008 ski season was 39,399. Numbers for December, January and February show 3,569 trips for The Valley Floor route, 658 for the Saturday Night Shuttle, 13,939 for the Mount Ellen Shuttle, 9,261 for the Condo Shuttle, 11,235 for the Access Road Shuttle and 738 for the Harwood Union Free Ride Shuttle.
PREDICATED ON GROWTH
The 1998 short-range transit plan, with year-round service and projections of 150,000 trips by the second year, was based on growth projections for The Valley. The need for public transit was predicated on projected increases in skier days, population and employment.
Skier days, which are reported by Sugarbush to the Mad River Valley Planning District at the end of each winter season, have dropped from a high of approximately 350,000 visits during the 1999-2000 season to approximately 264,000 during the 2003-04 season. Since the 2003-04 season, visits have begun to rebound, hitting approx 270,000 visits in the 2006-07 winter. Until 2003-04, Sugarbush did not have the technology to accurately record the number of days skied by season pass holders.
In 1998, according to the transit plan, the Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission reported 153 jobs in Fayston, 783 in Warren and 1,135 in Waitsfield, for a total of 2,071. By 2008, the plan projected 166 jobs in Fayston, 902 in Warren and 1,308 in Waitsfield, for a total of 2,376. The CVRPC website does not have 2007 data available, but its 2006 data showed 1,118 jobs in Warren, 190 in Fayston and 1,356 in Waitsfield, for a total of 2,664, well above the transit plan's 2008 project of 2,376.
In terms of population, the 1998 transit plan showed 4,014 people in Warren, Waitsfield and Fayston, and projected 4,450 by 2008. CVCRP's 2006 data from the website showed a three town population of 4,707.