ST. ALBANS- Bringing Uber to Franklin County was the big topic of discussion during last Wednesday’s public forum on public transportation held by the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans).

This June VTrans began the 15-month process of updating its Public Transit Policy Plan (PTPP), a ten-year vision for approved public transit in Vermont. Every six years the state goes through the reevaluation process to come up with ways to better connect the state with public transit.

“We’re looking at what sort of transit system works for the entire state and connects Vermont together and makes all the local systems work better independently and in a coordinated way,” Stephen Falbel, President at Steadman Hill Consulting, the consulting firm working on the redevelopment, said.

VTrans invited community members, leaders and agencies from across the county to  St. Albans for it’s first stop in a series of public forums across the state. After presenting several maps and statistics of the coverage area of public transportation, Falbel then asked the group where the gaps were seen in the county.

The biggest complaint was the need for better service to more rural populations.

“I think Uber would be a great way to fill in some of those gaps,” Heidi Britch-Valenta, Town Administrator of Highgate, said. “If the state could somehow bolster that network to get it into rural areas where it’s really needed, that would be a great asset.”

The challenge with this, Falbel mentioned, was that Uber and Lyft have created a niche market focused solely on more urban areas. This leaves the more rural areas like Highgate and Franklin, with very unreliable options for transportation. Green Mountain Transit (GMT), the largest public transit provider in Franklin County, does provide services to those areas in the morning, but there are no guaranteed afternoon services.

Another big service gap identified during the meeting is transportation to the BAART Clinic, an addiction treatment facility that opened in St. Albans last year.

According to Melinda White, Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) Coordinator at Northwestern Medical Center (NMC), a solution could be to identify one or two routes for each town once a week. Each patient of those towns would then schedule all their appointments the corresponding day. She mentioned that many partners would be willing to collaborate on the funding and even split the cost.

“There’s a lot of very willing partners in the community, I think it’s just trying to find a way to narrow this down a bit more. Everyone knows there’s a need, most everyone is on board now with being a part of the solution. I think the key thing is just getting the commitment of people,” White said.

Communication was a big part of this issue, and another key service gap identified at the forum. The group collectively acknowledged that GMT does a great job at informing the public with it’s website and social media platforms, but by relying on this as their sole method of communication they are missing a big portion of Franklin County residents.

“The technology is great for a number of people, but for a lot of people we work with, if they even have a cell phone that’s fantastic, but then where they live the service is a real barrier,” White said.

Elizabeth Nance, the economic development coordinator for the town of Swanton, suggested a better collaboration with town clerks, libraries and other community serving facilities in the area.

“It’s coming to the communities, so some of those people can shoot out that information,” Nance said.

Affordability was mentioned as a success. From all the agency representatives in the room, no one seemed to find any big issues with the costs of public transit services in the area.

If you were unable to attend the public forum and would like to have input into the plan, you can provide your feedback via an online survey accessed at vtrans.vermont.gov/planning/PTPP.

First developed in 2000, this is now the PTPP’s fourth reevaluation process. The past three redevelopments have had significant impacts on public transportation in the state.

In 2000, VTrans worked on expanding the elders and persons with disabilities program. In 2007. there was a focus on commuter transportation, resulting in a large growth in regional commuter routes. In 2012, the focus was on intercity transportation, resulting in the connection from Vermont to Albany, N.Y., and the across state connection from Rutland to White River Junction.

The goal of the public forums is to pinpoint what key issues should be the focus of the 2018 redevelopment. The needs assessment phase will continue through February of next year. Once completed, VTrans will then put together their recommendations into a final report that will be made available in the summer.