New bus route connects Claremont and Lebanon

By JOHN LIPPMAN

Valley News Business Writer

Published: 08-02-2021 12:35 PM

CLAREMONT — A new daily bus service aimed at helping employees get to their jobs and patients to their medical appointments has opened between Claremont and Lebanon.

Now all it needs is riders.

After more than a decade of delays and false starts, Sullivan County Transportation, the transit program run by Southwestern Community Services, has begun operating daily bus service running along Route 120 between the Upper Valley’s two biggest population centers, a vital link that has long been broken on the region’s transportation map.

“When Southwestern took over the transportation program (in 2016) from Community Alliance, getting from Claremont to Lebanon was the first thing people were talking about,” said Teri Palmer, who is overseeing the implementation of the new bus route. “This has been a long-time coming.”

The Claremont to Lebanon service, which currently has six scheduled daily runs, began with a “soft opening” the week of July 19 but service was suspended for several days last week after catalytic converters were stolen from the organization’s buses, temporarily knocking the fleet out of commission.

On Friday morning, with catalytic converters replaced, service resumed, although the first two runs, which were scheduled to leave from the Claremont Visitors Center at 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., were canceled after no passengers showed up (during the bus’s first week in service, only three passengers showed up).

“It’s slow because people are still not used to it,” mused Don Beam, a bus driver for Sullivan County Transportation, as he stood outside a new, $80,000-plus glimmering white 16-seat Ford E-450 Super Duty shuttle bus and waited 20 minutes past the scheduled 8 a.m. departure time for a passengers.

When none appeared, Beam said he would head back to Southwestern’s offices until the next run was scheduled to leave at 9:50 a.m. “I’ll do yard work or whatever needs to be done.”

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Palmer said the “soft opening” is essentially a shakedown period to test schedule times and stops and the new bus route will not officially kick off until a marketing campaign launches around August 9, when brochures and other materials will be distributed and the vehicle will be fitted out with an exterior “wrap” of photos of Claremont which identify the purpose of the bus.

“Word really hasn’t gotten out yet,” Palmer said about the sparse number of passengers who rode the bus over the past weeks. “But I think it’s going to be a whole lot different once we begin operating.”

So does state Rep. John Cloutier, D-Claremont, who has long advocated to open a bus route along the Route 120 corridor and in 2014 sponsored a bill in the “to get the state’s blessing” and which was signed by then-Gov. Maggie Hassan.

“Unfortunately it came with no money,” Cloutier explained. “I was told by the Senate Republicans it would never pass otherwise.”

“I’m very pleased it is launching and at least try it for awhile and see how it works,” Cloutier said. “But if it’s well promoted, the fares are reasonable and the schedule is reliable, I think a lot of people are going to be riding it.”

Sullivan County Transportation already has routes in Claremont, Charlestown and Newport. All its routes cost the same: $2.50 for a one-way ticket between towns or 50 cents for children age 6 to 12 (kids under 5 ride free). There is also an “eight punch pass” for $10 or an unlimited rides monthly pass for $35. Eligible low-income people ride free, and the Route 120 bus is free during the soft opening.

On Friday, potential passengers walking on North Street past the Claremont Visitors Center said they hadn’t heard anything about the new service to Lebanon, but they welcomed it.

“Awesome,” said Amanda Broughton who was walking with her friend Heidi Johnston, when they were told by a reporter about the new bus service. “I’m supposed to go to the (methadone) clinic at Dartmouth but I haven’t been able to go because I don’t have a ride … I like the idea.”

Asked what transportation she currently relies upon to get around, Broughton pointed at her feet.

Johnston, who also lacks her own transportation, said she would use the bus to “see my mother, she lives up that way, too.” Both Broughton and Johnston walking to the Claremont Visitors Center is an easy stroll from where they live on Lafayette Street, a short distance away.

Because there has been no daily bus service between Claremont and Lebanon, some Upper Valley employers have had to implement their own van pool service for employees commuting between home and work.

Hypertherm, for example, runs subsidized van pools between Claremont and its facilities in Hanover and Lebanon, although they have been suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019 — the last year before COVID-19 — about 15% of Hypertherm’s employees commuted to work via “non-single occupancy” modes of transportation, which encompasses van pools, public transportation and car pools.

Under the current schedule — which Palmer said could yet be tweaked depending upon ridership — the first bus leaves from the lower parking lot of the Claremont Visitors Center at 6 a.m. and arrives nonstop at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center at 6:45 a.m. The bus then returns to Claremont for a second run departing at 8 a.m., this time stopping at Lebanon City Hall at 8:40 a.m. and Dartmouth Coach in Lebanon at 8:48 a.m.

Palmer said the 6 a.m. nonstop to DHMC was scheduled because that’s what people indicated a strong desire for on surveys.

“They said if I could go directly to work, I would take that bus,” Palmer said.

The third morning bus to Lebanon departs at 9:50 a.m. and the three afternoon runs depart from Claremont at noon, 2:03 p.m. and 4 p.m. The return legs, which begin at DHMC, also stop at Lebanon City Hall and Dartmouth Coach on the way back to Claremont.

Palmer said Lebanon City Hall and Dartmouth Coach were selected as stops because that is where passengers can switch buses for Advance Transit routes or Dartmouth Coach’s buses to downtown Boston and Logan International Airport.

Palmer said the cost of adding the Claremont to Lebanon route is about $160,000 per year, about half of which comes from the federal government and is funded through the state and half which she raises from municipalities, grants, donations and ticket sales.

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.

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