Advance Transit leader reflects on 35 years keeping the Upper Valley moving

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    Advance Transit driver Neil Morrill, left, says goodbye to passenger Ernest Santana, of Hanover, N.H., on Thursday, Oct.,20, 2022, in West Lebanon, N.H. Santana is from Cuba and in the area learning English. After only a month of lessons he managed to convey how at home he is feeling in the Upper Valley and said "this bus is amazing." Morrill was riding the bus because another driver was learning his route in case he needed to fill in one day. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley news photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Van Chesnut, executive director of Advance Transit, clears files out of his office on Monday, Oct. 17, 2022, in Wilder, Vt. Chesnut is retiring after 35 years at the company. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Given to him by Ray Buskey as an inside joke, this brick was one of the things that remained in Van Chesnut's office on Monday, Oct. 17, 2022, in Wilder, Vt. Chesnut is retiring as executive director at Advance Transit after 35 years. Buskey was on numerous boards at Advance Transit. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Jennifer Hauck

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    Rosalind and Julius Anderson, of Pomfret, Vt., ride the Advance Transit bus to Hanover, N.H., for lunch on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022. Their car was in the shop in White River Junction, Vt., so they rode the bus to West Lebanon, N.H., to spend the day at the library and to have lunch in Hanover. "It makes life possible, a great gift to the Upper Valley," Julius Anderson said of the service. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Jennifer Hauck

  • Advance Transit bus drivers Lynette Sherman and Scott Christian step outside for a moment in Lebanon, N.H., on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022. Sherman was working a double shift that day and riding with Christian on the bus to kill a little time. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Van Chesnut and part of Advance Transit’s fleet in Lebanon, N.H., on Oct. 14, 1987. Chesnut was hired as the organization’s executive director in July 1987. (Valley News - Stephanie Wolff) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News file photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/22/2022 9:53:22 PM
Modified: 10/22/2022 9:53:10 PM

When Van Chesnut arrived at Advance Transit in 1987, the nonprofit organization was at a turning point.

Federal funding had fallen, leading to route cuts and fare increases, according to an October 1987 edition of the Valley News.

“I think there’s a general air of optimism,” Chesnut told the Valley News more than three decades ago, “but you can’t run a company on optimism, and we’re taking the necessary steps to get our house in order.”

The hope that board members felt at the time was largely due to Chesnut’s hiring and his background in running a successful transportation service in Indiana.

“It was nothing like it is today,” said Chesnut, of South Stafford. “We had completely inadequate facilities, there were a lot of staff openings, there was a rented fleet of vans and we didn’t have the proverbial pot, so to speak.”

The board’s confidence was not misplaced.

Chesnut, 67, is set to retire Nov. 15 after 35 years of helming the organization that, under his leadership, has transformed from a fledging rural transportation system to one of the most-respected nonprofit organizations in the Upper Valley.

Advance Transit has 53 employees, five paratransit vehicles and 26 fixed-route vehicles.

The system saw 125,997 rides taken on its fixed, color-coded routes in the last three months. The budget for its current fiscal year is $7.3 million.

“Van is a rock star in the world of rural public transportation,” said Jim Moulton, executive director of Tri-Valley Transit, a nonprofit that has locations in Randolph and Middlebury. “He is very knowledgeable, very measured. He does things right.”

During Chesnut’s tenure, Advance Transit stopped charging bus fares, built its headquarters and embraced green technology. He forged relationships with municipalities and employers, selling them on the benefits of financially supporting Advance Transit.

“First priority was, ironically, kind of what it is today: employment, especially of qualified bus drivers,” said Chesnut, who has stayed on at Advance Transit in a supporting role since Adams Carroll took over as executive director on Oct. 1.

Chesnut began by shoring up the nonprofit’s finances to show businesses and grant funders that Advance Transit was worthy of support and that solid financial footing is among the accomplishments he’s proudest of.

“To be able to go from literally hand-to-mouth and … going down to Concord and kind of being there when the check came off the printer at the treasurer’s office to run to the bank to cover the payroll, to now being able to have a capital reserve fund to take care of the bus purchases and operating reserves,” Chesnut said, “it’s extremely important to the long-term and short-term stability in the organization.”

Fare services

When Chesnut took over Advance Transit, the nonprofit was still charging for rides. The organization had a particular focus on the core towns of Hanover and Lebanon. Employees at Dartmouth College and Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital, then still in downtown Hanover, often competed for coveted parking spots.

“Advance Transit has always been focused on commuters,” Chesnut said. “I think it was really envisioned to be something viable for people to commute to and from work without using their cars because of all the issues caused by shortages of available parking and traffic congestion.”

A challenge was convincing people to take the bus. In the late 1990s, the nonprofit began fare-free routes between Lebanon and Hanover, recalled Matt Osborn, chairman of the Advance Transit board and Hartford’s town planner. Part of that decision to rethink its fare system was based on the hospital’s relocation to Lebanon, where it expanded into Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

“They thought that the fare-free zone was very successful and then they looked to make it systemwide, and they did,” Osborn said.

Without having to worry about fares, people would be more inclined to take the bus, the theory went. Ridership would increase, and with it more opportunities to raise funds.

In 2002, Advance Transit eliminated fares entirely.

“The fare system is something that’s not just a barrier for folks who might not able to afford to pay it on any given moment,” said John Haffner, program manager of housing and transportation at Vital Communities, “but it’s also for people who can afford it and have the barrier of, ‘I don’t have any change,’ or, ‘I have to get a bus pass,’ or, ‘I’m already spending a lot of money driving and I don’t want to spend more money for a public transportation option.’ ”

At the time, Advance Transit received some pushback from people who were upset that riders were using the service for free. Chesnut and Advance Transit stuck to it, conducting studies to explore its effectiveness.

“The fact is in rural public transportation, no matter what you’re charging, you’re covering a very small percentage of your costs and fares,” Chesnut said. “It costs a lot of money to charge fares and process the payments.”

Employers were on board and did their part to introduce Advance Transit to their employees.

“Dartmouth encourages employees and students to commute via Advance Transit, with information about AT and the other transit providers going out to employees during annual parking permit renewal season as another choice besides driving to campus alone,” David Newlove, associate vice president of business & hospitality at Dartmouth College, wrote in an email. “Dartmouth and Advance Transit have worked closely over the years, and it has been an important relationship that helped to develop fare-free service for the entire community, a shuttle route providing service around campus and downtown Hanover, and improved service times from campus to DHMC.”

Advance Transit has also worked with other public transit organizations to expand opportunities for commuters. People can take Tri-Valley Transit buses from the Randolph and Bradford, Vt., areas and hook up with Advance Transit buses to finish their commutes.

“Van is the type of person who is always looking to get to ‘yes.’ He’s not resistant to new and different things. He’s not territorial. He very much is looking to serve the public in whatever makes the most sense,” Moulton said. “When you’re working with someone with that type of mindset where the greater good is the goal and the outcome, it just makes for a very positive experience.”

Rebecca Owens, an associate planner for the city of Lebanon and a member of the Advance Transit board, worked with Chesnut to revamp the bus shelter at Miracle Mile near Listen. She was amazed by his knowledge of how to navigate the public funding process and other funding sources.

“That’s a big part of why Advance Transit has been so successful,” Owens said.

She described Chesnut as personable and approachable, never one to act aloof.

“He always has input, whether it’s on legislative advocacy or technology or organizational capacity and culture building, but then he can easily switch gears and he can talk about going to a local spot for a brew on a nice day,” Owens said. “In that regard, I think he’s able to relate to a really diverse audience whether it was employees or someone like me who’s on the board of directors for Advance Transit.”

Transit and development

Years ago, when developers would propose new housing projects, they’d often ask Chesnut and Advance Transit about expanding services.

“It used to be it’s like, ‘Oh, hey, we’ve got this development out here. When are you going to bring the bus service out here?’ We’re like, ‘I think you’ve got it backwards and upside down, folks,’ ” he said.

Over the years, transit providers, regional planning commissions and municipalities have worked together to encourage developers to think differently.

“Now, you see, for all the right reasons, these properties being developed either right on our established bus lines or within a reasonable walking distance,” Chesnut said.

This year, Advance Transit increased the frequency of its Blue Route during peak commuting times at DHMC to every 15 minutes. If more communities decide to encourage development in downtowns and high-density areas, the importance of public transit could grow.

“If we lean more toward density, then I think public transportation is going to be huge and important, and that would be more cost-saving in the long run and also better for taxes,” said Meghan Butts, executive director of the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission, who herself often uses Advance Transit to commute. “If we continue to sprawl, I don’t know if transit will keep up with it or not. I think the people who use it will continue to need it.”

As people move farther away to find more affordable housing, public transit cannot always meet those needs.

“There’s such an interconnectedness between housing and transportation,” Haffner said. “The more we can improve the affordability and availability of housing in our region the more we’re going to be able to take advantage of the transportation services that we have.”

Planning and embracing green technology

Every five years, Advance Transit puts together a new transit development plan. It surveys community members to ask for their opinions about the bus service and what they’d like to see it do.

About half of the people who take Advance Transit do have access to a car, Chesnut said, which shows that they are making the choice to ride the bus instead of doing so out of necessity.

Advance Transit has also paid attention to public sentiment about becoming more environmentally efficient, which has also led to cost savings from solar panels at its facility. Rain water and snow is collected to use to wash the buses. Two electric buses are expected to be in service by the end of this year, depending on any supply chain holdups. Three others are in the works for next year.

One criticism of Advance Transit over the years has been its lack of evening and weekend service. Chesnut understands that, but he’s also aware of the organization’s limitations and doesn’t want to spread its resources too thin, Osborn said.

“He doesn’t want to do something just because there’s community demand for it when maybe it isn’t going to be successful,” Osborn said.

Over the years Chesnut has always kept the people Advance Transit serves on his mind for every decision he makes. As he approaches retirement, Chesnut and his wife are looking forward to visiting their daughters and granddaughters, who live out-of-state. He has plans to do more skiing, biking, mushroom foraging and fishing.

“Over the years, a lot of people have been able to rely on Advance Transit as it means to get to and from work and earn their livelihood,” Chesnut said. “And that’s something we’ve never taken lightly.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at or 603-727-3221.

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