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Jim Kenyon: Advance Transit buses are essential, even as the virus takes hold

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 3/21/2020 8:44:25 PM
Modified: 3/21/2020 8:44:23 PM

Susan and Tom Franklin needed to get home — which in recent months has been a room at the White River Junction Comfort Inn — after shopping for food for themselves and litter for their cat, Baby.

On a bench just up the street from Kilton Public Library in West Lebanon, the older couple waited for their ride across the river. They sat shoulder-to-shoulder, sharing the bench with a few small bags of groceries, including the TV dinners Susan planned to cook later in their room’s microwave.

We talked for 10 minutes before the white-and-blue Advance Transit bus glided up to the sidewalk. Susan, 61, and Tom, 71, climbed aboard, grocery bags in tow.

Advance Transit is their lifeline. Like many other Upper Valley who residents who don’t drive or can’t afford cars, the Franklins rely on Advance Transit to get them where they need to be.

“I don’t know what would happen to us without it,” Susan Franklin told me. “It’s how we get to the doctor and shopping. Tom uses it to get to work.”

With the help of government funding, private contributions and support from big employers, the nonprofit Advance Transit has offered free bus service in the Upper Valley for nearly 40 years. AT, as it’s known, has a fleet of 32 buses that provide 600,000 rides a year on weekday routes that go from Norwich to Canaan.

But with the coronavirus threat growing by the day, can Advance Transit keep going?

“We don’t have any intention to close,” AT Executive Director Van Chesnut told me in a phone interview Thursday. “Our staff is dedicated to our mission. We understand that people depend on our service.”

AT is working to make sure its buses are as safe as possible, Chesnut said. The nightly cleaning protocol includes using disinfectant fog machines on the buses’ interiors to try to eradicate the health risks posed by coronavirus.

An AT driver was under quarantine last week, after testing positive for COVID-19. The driver worked for AT’s curb-to-curb paratransit service for people who can’t, due to a disability, use the organization’s fixed-route buses.

“There was limited exposure and we were able to identify anyone who was possibly exposed,” Chesnut said Wednesday after state officials notified AT of the positive result.

Even before the coronavirus reached the pandemic level, Susan Franklin, who suffers from an autoimmune disease, was taking precautions.

“When someone coughs on the bus, I tuck my head into my coat,” she said.

The Franklins look for seats that give them a bit of space. Social distancing on AT buses is easier these days than you might think.

“Ridership is way down, no question,” Chesnut said.

The Franklins are no strangers to tough times. Tom enjoyed a string of good-paying white-collar jobs in the manufacturing industry before the economy bottomed out in 2008. His 401(k) took a major hit in the Great Recession and then the company he worked for was sold.

“When you lose your job at 62, it’s like a death sentence,” he said.

With no job prospects, he started taking Social Security earlier than he’d planned, which significantly reduced his monthly payments.

Along with Social Security, Tom receives small pension checks from previous employers that enable the couple to afford the $600 a month it costs to stay at the Comfort Inn. What they don’t have, Tom told me, is the $3,000 to $4,000 they say they’d need in upfront costs (first and last month’s rent, for starters) for a decent apartment.

“We’re kind of stuck,” he said, “but at least we have a roof over our heads.”

To help make ends meet, Tom works part time at the Price Chopper on Miracle Mile in Lebanon. (Susan worked in real estate before becoming ill.)

Through the coronavirus threat and everything else they’ve endured — such as giving up their car to reduce monthly expenses — the Franklins remain upbeat.

Tom joked about a co-worker at Price Chopper who was chased through the store by customers while he pulled a cart loaded with toilet paper. “He was like the Pied Piper. He didn’t even get it onto the shelf. People grabbed it right off the cart.”

His wife chuckled. “I’d settle for one (package) of Charmin.”

On cold days, Susan ducks into Kilton Library while waiting for the bus to White River Junction. But to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, the library has been closed for more than a week.

At some point, the government could shut down public transportation systems across the county to help stem the virus’s spread.

I hope it doesn’t come to that. There’s a lot riding on Advance Transit continuing to operate.

Cheyenne Chalke, a 25-year-old supermarket cashier, needed to get to a doctor’s appointment at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center that had been scheduled for while. (It wasn’t because she was feeling ill, she said.)

Chalke can walk to the bus stop at Kilton from the apartment she shares with her boyfriend, who also rides AT to his job in Wilder.

“These buses are the best,” she said. “They’re so convenient and all the bus drivers are nice. I wouldn’t be able to get around without it.”

Later Wednesday afternoon, I stopped at the Upper Valley Haven in White River Junction, where the nonprofit was giving out fresh vegetables and fruit from a tent set up in the parking lot.

At the Haven’s AT stop, Craig Snyder, a 50-year-old house painter who hopes to find work once the weather warms up, stood alone. The bus that would drop him off near his friend’s place on the Hanover-Lebanon line, where he’s staying for the moment, chugged up the hill.

Clutching a bag filled with peppers, onions and oranges, Snyder hopped aboard. One passenger got off, and headed for the Haven’s outdoor food tent.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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