CLAREMONT — A long-discussed commuter bus service connecting Claremont to Lebanon expects to be operational before 2021, according to Southwestern Community Services Chief Operating Officer Beth Daniels.

In an interview with the Eagle Times, Daniels said that Southwestern Community Services hopes to begin announcing additional information next month about its intercounty bus route, which aspires to vastly expand transportation accessibility to employment opportunities, medical services and other needs of Sullivan and Grafton County residents.

“Just the medical needs alone, getting to and from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospital, the bus could be incredibly helpful,” Daniels said. “But also for the employers on either side of Sullivan County and Grafton County, people who live in one county but work in another, this service could be really beneficial.”

Southwestern Community Services is still developing details regarding the routes, but Daniels confirmed the bus would make three scheduled runs per day between the municipalities, with one morning run, one afternoon run and one evening run. Additionally the service plans to link its route with other transit services in Lebanon and the region, with scheduling designed to allow riders to more easily transfer from one bus to another.

“Our New Hampshire rural transit systems are not linked together [currently],” Daniels said. “You can’t get on one in the North Country and get to, say, the seacoast. And those are the kinds of corridor routes that we are working on as a statewide organization. We are really hoping that the Lebanon route shows that, by making some tweaks, we can do something pretty awesome.”

Public transportation is a critical need in rural New Hampshire, which has one of the fastest aging populations in the country, and with that a growing number of citizens who are less willing or unable to drive themselves. Additionally, a lack of vehicle ownership runs higher in low-income families. In a recent Eagle Times article, housing developer Jack Frank of Avanru Development Group in Walpole told the Newport Planning Board that approximately 15-20% of his low-income tenants in Walpole do not own a vehicle.

Daniels also noted a high demand for public transportation among young adults, particularly in urban areas such as Boston. For this demographic, the lack of vehicle ownership is due more to disinterest rather than affordability, according to studies.

A commuter bus route could potentially bolster Claremont’s current push to attract young professionals to live in its city. On Wednesday, the city council will vote on two key proposals toward its economic revitalization. One proposal is a $4.8 million Pleasant Street renovation project that would create a pedestrian plaza and increase socialization opportunities in the historic downtown. Another proposal is to approve a tax relief incentive to facilitate the renovation of a historic mill building into an apartment building with 80-90 market-rate units.

Southwestern Community Services, who took over transit services in Sullivan County in October 2016, began targeting the Lebanon-Claremont project about two years ago as part of its short-term plan.

The proposed route was first detailed in a 2011 feasibility study by the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission and later approved by the New Hampshire legislature, but it took several more years to find a willing provider of the service.

Daniels said the project’s push was delayed in part by a change of directors, from Southwestern Community Services’ former director Teri Paige to current Director Teri Palmer, during the creation of the program’s short term plan. The novel coronavirus pandemic further delayed the project.

“Some of our volunteer drivers are in that retirement age, so we had to be really careful with their safety [when adjusting routes and services],” Daniels said. “So on one hand we’ve made a ton of progress in the planning and prepping . . . but between the leadership changes and the pandemic, everything keeps getting delayed. But the Lebanon route is a no-brainer at this point.”

During the pandemic Southwestern Community Services conducted a public survey regarding the commuter route, which asked the public about preferred bus departure times and bus stops and where they would likely board.

In the coming weeks Southwestern Community Services plans to hold educational meetings with communities about the bus service, including its stops and departure times.

Southwestern Community Services is a multi-program community assistance organization, helping residents in Sullivan and Cheshire counties with fuel and weatherization assistance, housing, food, early child education, health care and other needs.

Sullivan County transit services are funded with a combination of state matching grants and local sources, as well as the program’s volunteer bus driver, some of whom will transport residents outside Soutwestern’s service area to needed appointments, according to Daniels. Local funding sources include public donations, municipal contributions and local grants. Local supporters have included Claremont Savings Bank, the Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH), the Newport Charitable Foundation and River Valley Community College.

“We are blessed,” Daniels said. “There are local transit providers across the country who struggle to get the matching funds, but we have been really lucky.”

For more information about Southwestern Community Services programs and supports, visit their website at http://www.scshelps.org/default.htm.

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