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Bill Seeks Money for Route 120 Bus

Claremont — Upper Valley lawmakers are sponsoring a bill to create a bus route along Route 120 from downtown Claremont to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, though it would rely mainly on federal funding.

The legislation, not yet finalized, would seek an appropriation of about $250,000, leveraged by a 20 percent contribution from the state, according to the bill’s prime sponsor, state Rep. John Cloutier, D-Claremont.

State Sen. David Pierce, the Hanover Democrat whose newly redrawn district stretches south to Claremont and Charlestown, is co-sponsoring the bill, as are eight other Upper Valley lawmakers. The bus would likely includes stops in Cornish and Plainfield as well, and might also serve River Valley Community College and Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont.

“There are so many voters who live in the southern part of the Upper Valley who commute every day to Lebanon and Hanover to get to work, and vice versa,” Pierce said. “(And) so many people in the northern part of the Upper Valley, because of the closure of so many state offices (in Lebanon), have to go down to Claremont, and if you don’t drive there is no way to get there except for public transit this bill would create.”

Talk of a public bus route that would run along Route 120 between Claremont and Lebanon is nothing new for two business owners situated along the Cornish Flat village green, but that doesn’t mean they are any less enthusiastic about the idea this time around.

“There are a lot of people now in the Flat that are disenfranchised, in this area, where they didn’t used to be years ago,” said Robert Bladen, general manager of the Cornish General Store. “I think it would be really helpful to people.”

The general store could also benefit financially as a potential stop along the bus route, an idea that was last floated in late 2011, but which never got off the ground due to a lack of available funds from the federal government.

Just across the road from the Cornish General Store, Amanda Posner operates two businesses out of her home — The Broom at Crows Corner, a jewelry gallery, and Magickal Hands, a message therapy clinic.

Posner, who has lived in Cornish for 18 years, said she has been “sort of watching and listening” for signs of a revival in the bus route discussions — but she added that she wasn’t surprised when nothing came to fruition.

“New Hampshire, you know,” said Posner, referring to a lack of funding from Concord for transportation projects, among other things.

As for the bus route, Posner said that would be a “great idea,” and not just because she hoped it would be good for business.

“I know there are people in Cornish that don’t have a way to get around,” she said.

The last round of discussions on the bus route in late 2011 came on the heels of state office closures in Lebanon, which included the Lebanon branch of the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Health and Human Services office, which distributes welfare support to low-income residents. Many Valley residents now have to go to Claremont for such services.

Recent studies by the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission a few years ago found both a strong need and demand for public transit along Route 120.

In a 2011 study, a bus route providing five round-trips a day between Claremont and DHMC about 115 passengers daily, including both commuters and mid-day riders.

The route would likely be operated by Community Alliance Transportation Service, based out of Newport, which links the town to Claremont and Charlestown. Executive Director Barbara Brill described herself as “very cautiously optimistic” that bus route could attract federal dollars, although it hasn’t in the past.

In 2010, the transportation company established a volunteer-based driving service for the Claremont area, which has since grown to include about 25 active volunteers who drive about 10,000 miles a month, according to Brill.

“The interesting piece in all of this is that many of those are to the Upper Valley, to DHMC and the (Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction),” she said. “We’re looking at trips being made for dialysis, chemotherapy, radiation — and they all need rides.”

There is also a strong commuting need, according to Christine Walker, executive director of the regional planning commission, who said that many who work in the Lebanon area commute from Claremont and Springfield, Vt. because of that area’s more affordable housing.

“We’ve seen an increase in the use of (Route 120),” Walker said. “The Park and Ride in Springfield is packed all the time. There’s a lot of interest in being able to have that commuter route put in.”

Cloutier, the bill’s prime sponsor, said that he would be reaching out to local employers to help the fundraising effort to also raise money for the route, including the 20% or $50,000 match. In 2011, major employers such as Hypertherm and DHMC signed onto the idea of a bus route linking Claremont to Lebanon, and Hypertherm helped pay for a new Advance Transit bus that launched this month serving the Etna Road corridor from the heart of the Upper Valley.

Aaron Brown heads the Upper Valley Transportation Management Association, a nonprofit group that discourages the use of single occupancy vehicles and focuses instead on “smart commuting.” He estimated that both of those employers “easily have hundreds of employees who live down in Claremont.”

Brown said that while the service from Claremont to Lebanon was “very important to get started,” he described the legislative approach as “untraditional.”

“Looking at the bigger picture, it would be more important in New Hampshire to have the state set up a long-term basis operating system, rather than kind of pick one at a time,” he said.

For Brown, contributions for transportation projects from the state governments in the Upper Valley tell “a tale of two states.”

“Vermont has done a terrific job of funding bus routes, many of which go to New Hampshire and have great ridership,” he said. “The state of New Hampshire has not historically funded transportation in the same way.”

Brown blamed that lack of funding on what he described as New Hampshire’s “archaic tax system,” and the lack of any broad-based income or sales tax that could raise revenues for transportation projects.

Cloutier, prime sponsor of the bill that would establish the bus route as a pilot program, said that the politics of attracting the funding would not be easy. He said that the House Transportation Committee might retain the bill for further study until the end of the year, “and that’s fine.”

“I would hope that they could pass the bill, help appropriate the money for the startup cost, and use this entire proposal as a pilot study for the rest of the state,” said Cloutier.

He also lamented the fact that the state subsidizes only one bus service, which he said ran out of Concord.

“If we appropriate money, it shouldn’t be just for the southern part of the state,” he said. “It should be for areas like Lebanon, like Claremont, because we are part of New Hampshire too.”

State Sen. Bob Odell, a Lempster Republican whose district includes Newport, said he was in support of the bill now that it had been tweaked to rely more on federal funding than on state funding.

Odell, whose district previously included Claremont, said that there was a clear demand and a sizeable potential benefit for both businesses and communities along the corridor, but he doubted the bill’s chance of passage.

“The reality is that we don’t have the population density that they do in other parts of the state,” he said.

Posner, the Cornish businesswoman, said she has noticed a “tremendous amount of traffic flow through (Route 120)” in recent years.

Describing herself as “a little nocturnal,” Posner said she often does makes jewelry into the early hours of the morning. The traffic, she said, starts as early as 4 a.m.

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Hanover — At least two companies near the Route 120 corridor are taking action to encourage their employees to use public transit. Hypertherm, a manufacturer of advanced plasma-cutting systems and one of the Upper Valley’s largest employers, announced earlier this month that it is funding a new Advance Transit bus route that is adding service to Heater Road and Etna …