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Creating a regional transportation system from the ground up


October 06, 2010
PLYMOUTH—The need for expanded regional public transportation in rural Central New Hampshire is widely recognized, but for years there has been very little progress in efforts to get an effective system off the ground.

There is no shortage of ideas or visions for the future, but at least until now, the wherewithal for moving forward has been missing from the equation.

That may be beginning to change however, as a year-long study of regional transportation needs, resources and opportunities comes to fruition.

Last week, nearly 100 local residents, public officials and other stakeholders gathered at the Plymouth Regional Senior Center to hear a report from Transportation Planning Consultant Bethany Whitaker, from the nationally known firm of Nelson/Nygaard Associates.

The Transit Feasibility Study, commissioned locally by North Country Council (NCC) and the Plymouth-based non-profit Transport Central, outlines a five-year plan for phasing in a regional public transportation system for the 19-town area around Plymouth, including Ashland, Bristol and surrounding communities as far north as Lincoln. It provides the groundwork and a comprehensive plan for building a network of expanded transportation options to meet the needs of the elderly, disabled, and transit dependent populations, as well as commuters and those who would prefer, for economic or environmental reasons, to keep their cars at home.

Whitaker conceded that meeting the needs of a diverse population scattered over a large geographic area of rural New Hampshire poses some very difficult challenges, but she also indicated a step by step path forward, with a series of recommendations that would deal with critical needs first and build over time to address a full range of intra-regional commuter issues.

Ultimately, the plan would address demand for travel to outside the area to important destinations such as Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Hanover/Lebanon, shopping and medical services in Laconia and Tilton, and the regional transportation hub in Concord.

According to Whitaker, the goals for the project include: creating an efficient and cost effective system that makes good use of the public funds that are invested; coordinating the use of existing resources to increase access; marketing extensively so that the transportation options are widely communicated and easily understood by potential users; and securing financial sustainability for the transportation system improvements.

The question of how to fund public transportation in rural New Hampshire was paramount in the minds of many in attendance at last week's forum. Whitaker indicated that the prospects for securing federal funding are somewhat uncertain, as the Federal Transportation Bill is up for re-authorization within the next few years, but she felt that it was not unreasonable to expect support from a variety of outside sources, many of which are spelled out in her final report. She scoped out a possible five-year scenario which begins with hiring a "mobility manager" to coordinate existing services and expand volunteer driven options, and then to expand dial-a-ride services and ultimately build a fixed route network.

Given certain assumptions about probable funding sources, she estimated local "match" at anywhere from $20,000 for the first year to approximately $350,000 in the fifth year for a full build-out of the regional plan.

There was considerable discussion about where the local match would come from, including, for instance, budget allocations from each of the 19 member towns, user fees, stakeholder support from major businesses in the area, or a combination of these sources.

The first step in the process would be to move forward with the hiring of the "mobility manager" to create a centralized office, phone number and Web site for accessing existing resources, and then to pursue grant opportunities to expand the system.

More information and the full results of the Transit Feasibility Study are available online at the Transport Central Web site at www.transportcentral.org. A completed directory of existing community transportation services has recently been completed by the Grafton-Coop Regional Coordination Council and was made available at the fransportation forum; it can also be found online at www.grafton-coosrcc.org.

For a copy of the Community Transportation Services Directory or hard copies of the report, or to volunteer with helping with implementing the recommendations of the report, contact prkendall7@yahoo.com.

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