MicroMoo transportation initiative in Windsor is pilot program for state

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 02-01-2023 5:52 PM

WINDSOR — As the mercury falls, Barby Shambo, a cook at Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center, has her rides to her job in the kitchen sorted for the week. Shambo normally treks to work 30 minutes by foot, but now she’s picked up right at her house thanks to a new head in the Windsor transportation herd.

The MicroMoo van, operated by Southeast Vermont Transit, is a flexible, free transportation option. Riders make a reservation and the service picks them up at their designated time from anywhere in town.

“It’s really easy,” Shambo said, “and it saves me time.”

Microtransit — small-scale, on-demand rides — is a relatively new concept in the realm of public transportation. Southeast Vermont Transit CEO Randy Schoonmaker, a champion of the service in the state, who brought microtransit to Windsor, calls it “Uber with a van.” Just one other service like it exists in Vermont.

A fixed route goes along a set track at set times — a model that includes the likes of Advance Transit, which serves the Lebanon, Hanover and Norwich area — has its limitations, Schoonmaker said.

“If you don’t live along the route, it’s way harder for you to ride that bus,” he said. “Microtransit is much more flexible, and on demand. It expands the number of people who can use public transport.”

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The MicroMoo is one of five two-year pilot projects across the state selected by the Vermont Agency of Transportation to bolster and diversify rural public transportation.

“Windsor has a great hospital, it’s got industry, it’s got senior housing, its got a school,” Schoonmaker said. “It’s just a good-sized town to try a pilot for.”

The van runs on a $120,000 federal grant as well as $30,000 in state funding from The Mobility and Transportation Innovations Grant Program, which supports “projects that improve both mobility and access to services for transit-dependent Vermonters, reduce the use of single-occupancy vehicles and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” the website reads.

The MicroMoo van can collect users from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. For now — with the exception of the Exit 9 park and ride off of Interstate 91 to scoop up highway commuters — it operates strictly within the Windsor town lines.

Schoonmaker intends for MicroMoo to go a bit macro in Windsor.

“We have an eight-seat bus, but we’re getting a new all-wheel drive transit van that will have seven seats and room for two wheelchairs,” Schoonmaker said. “We will run every single day. We will not take a snow day.”

Mt. Ascutney Hospital was a key advocate for bringing MicroMoo to Windsor, Schoonmaker said.

“Public transportation is a lifeline for so many folks, and by making it a no-cost service, we are further reducing barriers to access,” said Amanda Jordan Smith, volunteer coordinator with Mt. Ascutney who helped land the transit service.

“This service is particularly important to those hoping to ‘age in place’ and to those that may have low or limited incomes or who lack familial support close by.”

Before MicoMoo, home health aide Nylene Robinson would accompany Thomas Reynolds by foot to his appointments at Mt. Ascutney, helping him navigate his wheelchair over the town’s “questionable” sidewalks, she said. For farther-flung appointments, like at DHMC, Reynolds and Robinson hopped in a chartered personal vehicle.

The Vermont Agency of Transportation operates a Community Driver Program, which enlists volunteers driver to fill transportation gaps. The drivers get paid a 55.5-cents-per-mile reimbursement.

“It’s not taxed income; they’re not an employee,” Schoonmaker said. “They can tell us when they want to work. We’ll take whatever they can give us.”

The state is strapped for volunteer drivers.

“Before the pandemic we had 75 volunteers in our agency, and now we have less than 30,” Schoonmaker said. “So we’re all trying to recruit volunteers has much as possible.”

Still, this option is less than ideal for people with disabilities. “If you’re an amputee or have a wheelchair to bring with you, it was really taxing to make it happen in a personal vehicle,” Reynolds said.

And the MicroMoo does more for the community than just shuttle it to work and doctor’s appointments, she said.

“They’ve opened it up to taking you grocery shopping, taking you places and coming back to get you. Or going to a department store, or going shopping ourselves at Walmart, or some place distant. We’ve even entertained the idea of going out to dinner, which we haven’t done in years,” Robinson said. “It’s really uplifting for your spirits when you can get out and enjoy people in a different atmosphere, without the stress of worrying about how you’ll get there or get home.”

Service should be scheduled at least 30 minutes in advance. Reservations can be made between 7:45 a.m. and 5 p.m. at 888-869-6287, or online at https://www.moover.com/windsor-microtransit/.

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

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