BENNINGTON — The challenges of running a public transportation service safely during the COVID-19 pandemic are significant, but the people responsible for the operation of the Green Mountain Express are well aware that the community needs them more than ever.
According to 2018 US Census Bureau data, 16.2 percent of Bennington's population lives below the poverty line, making accessible transportation vital to those who cannot afford their own vehicles.
"There are so many people that depend on the service that don't have vehicles, that are far enough away from grocery stores, pharmacies, medical appointments,"said Brian J. Maroney Jr., the executive director of the not-for-profit Green Mountain Community Network, which operates the Express. Losing the service "would be devastating to people, especially during a time where it is even harder for them to get out and about and do it safely."
Instead of shutting down when the pandemic hit, the Green Mountain Express implemented safety procedures and scheduled additional buses in order to keep people safe.
"We actually at times put in an additional bus on the shopping route on days where there was high demand so we could safely keep people spread out," Maroney said. This shortened the bus waiting time from 30 minutes to 15.
The public transportation agency, which operates 15 buses and 6 minivans in Bennington, taped off every other seat in some instances to encourage social distancing. As a part of the Work Smart & Stay Safe Executive Order implemented by Gov. Phil Scott, mask use is required on public transit services.
"Our drivers have full PPE (personal protective equipment), shields or glasses, they wear their masks, they have gloves. We are really trying to limit personal contact and keep everyone safe. We're sanitizing the buses every day," Maroney said.
According to Maroney, riders took their own precautions as well and limited their traveling which resulted in a 50-percent decrease in ridership "since COVID-19 hit plus or minus given the week."
According to Capri Pelzer, a dispatcher at the Green Mountain Community Network, all of the buses are equipped with wheelchair lifts and wheelchair latching that keep riders secure. Seatbelts can also be extended for riders who are in wheelchairs.
The non-profit organization also collaborated with the Green Mountain Mask Makers to help deliver finished masks to places in need such as hospitals.
"Rather than put somebody else out in the public at the time where we had to be essential workers anyway, our drivers were happily doing that stuff. It was a rewarding thing for all of us," Maroney said.
In addition to helping deliver personal protective equipment, the Green Mountain Express also collaborated with Meals on Wheels to deliver weekly meals to Arlington and Manchester, and helped deliver meals locally to homeless citizens.
Maroney, who previously sat on the board of the Green Mountain Community Network for seven years, wants the community to know that the Green Mountain Express provides more than just rides to the community and are here to support the community in any way they can.
"We do more than just the bus route service. We've got a great hardworking local staff here that cares about what they do. The team here wants to make a difference," he said.
Pelzer wants the community to know that "we're just here for them, just in general, for their transportation needs — whatever they have to get taken care of, we're just here."
Maroney describes Green Mountain Express as an "extended family," with passengers and bus riders looking out for each other and getting to be a part of each other's lives.
"It doesn't have to be a big thing to make a difference. We live in a great community and it's just great to be part of that and to be part of this whole thing and make a difference as a community united," he said.