Mountain Road Shuttle service is secured for next year, but Green Mountain Transit Authority — the organization that runs that shuttle route and more than 40 others in Vermont — is still looking at ways to cut costs.
Last week, the transit authority briefly proposed eliminating the Mountain Road Shuttle in Stowe.
Yelps of protest erupted all over town.
Stowe Town Manager Charles Safford said he learned of the proposed change from Bobby Murphy, general manager and vice president of Stowe Mountain Resort, and was “a little surprised. It was short notice; it didn’t give us a lot of chance to work with the situation.”
He would have preferred time to work with Green Mountain Transit to figure out funding, since he says the shuttle is vital to Stowe’s residents and tourists.
Thomas Chittenden, chair of the Green Mountain Transit board of the directors, distributed a letter during a Tuesday morning board meeting apologizing for not communicating the transit authority’s financial struggles to stakeholders earlier, and promising to do better.
Stowe Area Association, Stowe’s destination marketing organization, rallied its members, asking them to attend a Green Mountain Transit finance meeting on Friday in Burlington.
As it turned out, by Friday morning, the proposal to eliminate the Mountain Road Shuttle was off the table.
But people in Stowe were up in arms about the possibility.
The people on the bus
The Mountain Road Shuttle runs from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., November through April, starting at Commodores Inn on South Main Street and making a loop through town that includes the Akeley Memorial Building, Stoweflake Mountain Resort and Spa, Topnotch Resort, and Stowe Mountain Resort’s gondola parking lot.
The Mountain Road Shuttle is free for users, and is funded by a six-way partnership involving the Green Mountain Transit Authority, the Stowe town government, the Vermont Agency of Transportation, Stowe Mountain Resort, Stowe Area Association and Spruce Peak Realty.
The town of Stowe is responsible for 20 percent of that match, but last year, contributed 27 percent — $31,500, according to Safford.
That amount is in Stowe’s proposed town budget that will be up for voter discussion on Town Meeting Day, Tuesday, March 5.
Spruce Peak contributes $25,000, said Sam Gaines, president of Spruce Peak Realty.
A Green Mountain Transit Authority press release issued last Monday cited decreasing ridership. However, last winter, ridership on the Mountain Road Shuttle was up 9 percent from the prior fiscal year.
By December 2018, about 15,350 people had used the Mountain Road Shuttle in the fiscal year that started July 1, a 15.7 percent increase from last year, said Jamie Smith, marketing and public affairs manager for the transit authority.
Smith declined to discuss the financial factors further, emailing only a statement expressing his excitement that the Mountain Road Shuttle will continue to operate next year.
“At this point, GMT reserves have been depleted,” a separate press release read.
“While we hoped to avoid service suspensions and increasing fares, we are at a point where those options are also being considered.”
Green Mountain Transit Authority’s director of finance also declined to answer questions about the transit authority’s financial situation.
The transit authority’s general manager couldn’t be reached for comment by press time.
According to draft minutes from Friday’s financial committee meeting, Green Mountain Transit is facing a budget deficit of more than $900,000, with gaps in both its urban and rural routes.
It’s estimated that in the next fiscal year, seasonal routes such as the Mountain Road Shuttle will cost Green Mountain Transit $28.83 per hour, including driver time, bus maintenance, fuel and oil.
That’s a seasonal allocation of about $276,000 for all of Green Mountain Transit’s seasonal routes.
“The total additional funding amount needed to avoid service cuts, including local capital match, for the Stowe Mountain Road service is $80,500,” draft minutes read.
The Mountain Road Shuttle is a key service for the town during the winter, say people from all corners of Stowe.
Safford pointed out that, since Stowe Mountain Resort draws lots of traffic to the region, inviting as many people as possible to use the Mountain Road Shuttle, rather than driving their own cars, minimizes damage to Mountain Road, a state highway.
“That road only has the capacity to handle so much. The more people we can get taking the transit, the better. Stowe Mountain Resort has worked to make it a priority up there, so you get front-row drop-off. It’s advantageous to everybody in the community,” Safford said.
The Stowe town government used to operate the shuttle service, but began outsourcing it to Green Mountain Transit Authority in 2004.
Ross MacDonald, public transit coordinator for the Vermont Agency of Transportation, said traffic congestion on Mountain Road is mitigated by the Mountain Road Shuttle, which is helpful in moving the state toward meeting reduced emissions goals.
“It does address the environmental impacts more than some others, because of the congestion mitigation element of that route. If there are 60,000 trips that we can take off the Mountain Road, then we can expect to really see some reductions in overall environmental footprints of those trips,” MacDonald said.
Chuck Baraw, who owns Stoweflake Mountain Resort and Spa, has been a vocal supporter of the Mountain Road Shuttle service.
In recent years, Baraw has attended meetings to help guide Green Mountain Transit toward better service, including eliminating “whistle stops” in favor of planned stops around town, and adding a bus to the route.
“We tremendously support it. We’re fortunate enough that we actually have them pull in by us,” Baraw said. “It’s right outside my window, and I’d say at least 50 percent of the time that it pulls in here, twice in an hour, we have people get on and off.
“It’s used a lot also by people who go up as a family and some of the family wants to come back before others, so they take the shuttle home and leave the car,” Baraw said.
He thinks the Mountain Road Shuttle has also helped alleviate cramped parking at Stowe Mountain Resort.
“A lot of staff use it as well, and that’s really important,” Baraw said. He estimated 10 to 20 of his employees use the shuttle to get to work.
Gaines said the same, and he’d like it to expand to a year-round service.
“We hope that the service will eventually expand to the summer and late-night hours. While there may not be skiing during the summer, we still have over 400 employees and … over 1,000 guests per day (who) would greatly benefit from expanded shuttle service,” he said.
Rosmarie Trapp, a senior at West Branch Apartments in Stowe, said last year that she uses the Mountain Road Shuttle for most of her transportation needs in the winter, since she stopped driving in 2006.
She, too, wants to see it year-round.
Shawn Kerivan started driving the Mountain Road Shuttle this year after selling the Auberge de Stowe, and thinks year-round service would be beneficial to his town.
He called the bus “one of the best services that we have in this community.”
“People keep coming on the bus and pulling out their wallets and they’re astonished when I tell them it’s free,” Kerivan said.
His sons took the bus to work as teens.
“When we owned the Auberge, we constantly told guests that the best thing to do was go up with your skis and enjoy yourself. Have a beer or two and not have to worry about driving and then jump on the bus and it’ll drop you off at the front door,” Kerivan said.
There’s a “significant number of people who live and work up here who don’t have transportation. They just don’t. The No. 1 reaction I get from the locals, especially when the bus starts to run, is, ‘I wish this was year-round. I wish we had this bus service in Stowe year-round.’ There’s a community for that ridership here,” Kerivan said.
Heidi Scheuermann, Stowe’s representative in the Vermont House of Representatives, was relieved to learn shuttle service is guaranteed for next year.
“The longer-term challenge of ensuring we have the service and who provides that service is something we can now work on, and I’m confident we’ll be able to put something together,” Scheuermann said. “As far as immediate steps, I think we’re going to watch right now as the budgets are developed.
“We are really determined to understand better the financial situation of GMT in terms of this route and the other routes, and see where they are, and then if GMT doesn’t want to provide the service, then we will go elsewhere,” she said.