Monday October 29, 2012

ZEKE WRIGHT

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- It turns out you can get there from here, with 50 cents and a little planning.

Among all the competing issues in Washington, D.C., transportation sometimes gets the short shift and not the attention it deserves according to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. And while not everyone in Bennington County owns a car, "all people have a right to go from place A to place B," Sanders said, in town Saturday to commemorate the upgraded "multi-modal" transit center at 215 Pleasant St.

The home hub for Green Mountain Express buses for more than two decades, the property underwent a $1 million renovation and building project starting last November that added a waiting and ticket area and created additional bus parking.

Completed this past July, the project also included safety lighting and landscaping, cosmetic repairs and system upgrades, and a revised traffic flow. Green Mountain Community Network Executive Director Donna Baker said the improved accommodations would help grow Bennington's public transportation system.

"This is going to truly help," Baker said. "When you look professional, when you have all the right stuff going for you -- it makes a difference."

And ridership has grown: greatly, in fact -- Baker said Green Mountain Express tallied 135,000 rides last year, about three-times the number as in 2007 when the transportation service spun off from the local Red Cross. Ridership has risen along with the number of routes, which now include evening runs and a connection to Wilmington.

Long term, Baker said the plan was to work with other carriers like Yankee Trails to utilize the center. Although there are spatial concerns, the central downtown location is nearly ideal for sending drivers in transit in all four directions, reducing "deadhead miles." It's also adjacent to a municipal parking lot recently designated a "park and ride" by Vermont.

Upgrades to the transit center were funded through a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development community loan and a Federal Transit Administration earmark totaling approximately $326,000, secured by Sanders in 2008 for the town of Bennington. The Select Board later voted to direct the funds to the nonprofit community network.

"We shared a dream," said Select Board Chairman Joseph L. Krawczyk Jr., responding to acknowledgement of the town's role from Sharyn Brush, chairwoman of the community network's board (and also a Select Board member).

Sanders said while the term "earmark" had been much maligned, "I have confidence the people I work with have better knowledge of what's going on in Vermont" than lawmakers in Washington. The senator grouped the bus hub with other development in the area and announced a new omnibus transportation bill from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which he said would bring more than $400 million to Vermont over the next two years to fund infrastructure needs.

The measure also includes a big boost for public transit in the state; with overall funding increasing more than 50 percent, from $6.2 million a year to more than $9.5 million a year.

Sanders said some lawmakers understood the greater importance of public transportation, "not only enabling people to get where they need to go, but also, in terms of the overall environment ... if we get people on buses and out of cars, that is a good thing for our environment."

Bus lines and updated schedule information for Green Mountain Express is available at the transit center at 215 Pleasant St., by calling (802) 447-0477, or online at www.greenmtncn.org.

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