County readies plan to expand bus service

HUDSON–Ken Flood, Columbia County planning commissioner, and public transportation consultant Debbie Soule reported on their transportation study and plan before a special meeting of the County Board of Supervisors’ Transportation Committee. The study, a nine-month work in progress, is now a 130 page document due for release next week.

Ms. Soule, who helps counties and towns with transportation issues including coordination, operations, marketing, funding and subsidies, was hired by Columbia and Greene counties, which will each pay 5% of her $100,000 contract. The other 90% is being funded by a state grant. She has worked with Amsterdam, Oswego, and other cities, in each case helping the municipalities save significant sums.

The plan, once enacted, “should save Columbia County money while providing better, more efficient, convenient, and green service,” said Commissioner Flood. “This is a very exciting development. It’s taken a while, but it’s going to be well worth it,” he said.

The county has some public transportation, including the Hudson shuttle bus that takes shoppers from a few locations in Hudson to stores on Fairview Avenue for a dollar a ride. Copake, Ancram, Germantown, Claverack, Taghkanic and Gallatin are served by two different routes, and four buses make daily runs to Albany and back for around $5 a ride. But in spite of the fact that as many as 5,000 people already take some 32,000 rides per year, there’s still plenty of room for improvement both in cost effectiveness and in the ability to get people to their destinations on time.

Money from the federal economic stimulus package has been used to purchase two new, 32-passenger buses that will arrive and be put to work in Hudson in just a few weeks. Another $165,000 of stimulus money has been committed to two15-passenger buses that will be used to bring riders in from outlying areas, where ridership is not as high, to connect with buses going to Albany.

Ms. Soule emphasized the importance of keeping public transportation public and not geared exclusively toward any one group–shoppers for instance–a factor that might discourage future state and federal government funding for transportation. Increased revenues are expected in two to three years as ridership increases, and Ms. Soule recommends asking the businesses along Fairview Avenue and elsewhere, which stand to benefit from increased numbers of shoppers, to support the system through contributions.

One hidden local resource, it turns out, is the number of buses already in operation by organizations like COARC, the Health Care Consortium and Veterans’ Services. If an organization is willing, some of those vehicles might be put into public service when they are not otherwise being used. In theory, this would increase the usefulness of each vehicle, while cutting down the cost of setting up an expanded transportation system, and the public would have more use of resources that taxpayers are already supporting.

At present many public agencies spend heavily on transportation for clients. The Department of Social Services (DSS) now spends $600,000 or more annually on transportation. It frequently uses taxis while being unable to negotiate a contract with any of the local cab companies. The department is required by federal law to provide appropriate transportation that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Disabled riders may benefit from new laws that allow bus drivers to travel up to 3/4 of a mile beyond a regular route to reach those who cannot travel to regular bus stops. But current transportation law can work against efficiency too. A bus needs a waiver from the state to travel beyond city limits. A Hudson trolley can’t even go to Greenport without one, said Mr. Flood.

Right now the committee is grappling with the question of whether to recommend hiring a transportation coordinator or mobility manager, perhaps the biggest cost item of the new plan and the move likely to lead to the most progress as well. Ultimately, that decision will be made by the Board of Supervisors.

Art Baer (R-Hillsdale), a member of the Transportation Committee, has asked Ms. Soule for three different levels of improvement, accompanied by cost estimates.

If improvements are made, the public will need to be educated about the new opportunities. “You need to get better routes that serve people better, then you need to publicize them with schedules that are easier to access and read, and a logo, so people recognize the buses,” said Mr. Flood.

The committee is looking for a 50% improvement in two -to-three years, but the plan, if properly enacted, has the potential to realize savings in the realm of $400,000 over 5 years.

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