Trial bus service slated for February

Clinton to Lycoming and local loop planned

LOCK HAVEN — Public buses would be a nice addition to the community, the Clinton County commissioners heard.

People who have opinions about such a bus service are encouraged to weigh in with them.

A trial period of bus runs between Lock Haven, Jersey Shore, and Williamsport, plus a bus loop in Clinton County, is proposed for February through May 2017.

River Valley Transit of Williamsport is very much on board and hopes to provide the service using two new buses that operate on compressed natural gas.

“We’re ready to go,” said general manager Bill Nichols. He called the idea “a great opportunity.”

In most cases, River Valley’s trials like this one attract so many riders that they become permanent routes, Commissioner Chair Pete Smeltz said.

The concept has been around for several years, he said, and has been discussed before but the county was waiting until the time was right.

“We think this is the time,” he said.

Members of the county’s recently formed Public Transit Community Advisory Committee and representatives of the River Valley Transit bus company talked about the proposed trial at the commissioners meeting Thursday morning.

River Valley recently gave the advisory committee a detailed proposal about the trial, and committee member Stephen L. Stevenson has been involved with choosing suggested bus stops and routes. He is Lock Haven City Council vice president and a PennDOT retiree.

PennDOT encourages regional bus service and would put up the majority of the money needed for this trial. A local share of funding is also needed. The local share is $15,200, a relatively low amount, according to Katie deSilva, county grants administrator and co-chair of the transit advisory committee.

If PennDOT believes the proposed program is a regionalization initiative and not just a case of River Valley expanding its business, she said, it may waive the local share entirely or at least keep it low.

Nichols noted that the local share in Lycoming County has not changed in 20 years.

For now, the committee is offering sponsorship opportunities to stakeholders including First Quality Tissue and other industries and businesses whose employees might ride to work. Local municipalities may be asked to budget some funds for next year. The Clinton County Housing Authority Board is in favor of the idea and will help fund it, deSilva reported. Other stakeholders are Lock Haven University, the Clinton County Economic Partnership, and others.

The committee has met three times so far and has grown and widened its scope since it started, according to its chair, Tim Holladay, who is the county planning director.

River Valley has been approached for years about providing transportation to and from Lock Haven University and Williamsport, Nichols said. Such a run would “make Clinton County more accessible and get some traffic off that corridor,” he said.

The transit company covers all of Lycoming County, operates the Hiawatha Paddlewheel Riverboat near Williamsport, and manages BeST Transit which serves Tioga, Bradford and Sullivan counties.

It serves more than a million passengers a year, and provides mobility for students and seniors, members of the population who generally don’t drive their own cars.

STEP community action agency also provides transportation for seniors, giving over 102,000 rides last year alone. Jim Plankenhorn, the agency’s president and CEO, attended the commissioners meeting and gave the opinion that the proposed new bus service would make the region stronger, even though it might take a few riders away from STEP.

Commissioner Paul Conklin said he hopes four months is long enough for the service to catch on with the public, and Nichols said River Valley plans to publicize it.

“The most fearful moment of riding the bus is the first time you ride it… when those bus doors open for the first time,” he said.

Low rates are proposed. A rider can take the bus from Lock Haven to the Lycoming Mall for a little over $1 a day, or ride all day for $2.25. Senior citizens age 65 and older will ride free, thanks to Pennsylvania Lottery funding.

Some buses have bike racks and all have cameras, the commissioners heard.

February through May was chosen as the trial period, Stevenson said, because LHU will be in session and because February is a winter month when people may not wish to deal with ice and snow to get out their own vehicles.

The buses would run six days a week, and the schedule would be available on the River Valley Transit website:

People with smart phones may use “My Ride” to enter the number of their bus stop and find out if their bus is three minutes away, five minutes away, or 20 minutes away, Nichols said. Those without smart phones may call a phone number and get similar information.

Albert Jones represented First Quality at the meeting. Although the industry is a seven-day-a-week operation, a six-day bus route would still serve the work force, he said. Perhaps the bus service could expand sometime in the future so that it runs every day, he added.

“Whatever the need is, we’ll meet it eventually,” Nichols said.

First Quality is committed to the community, he said, and supports public transit, not just so that it can serve its employees but also so that it can boost tourism to the area.

Smeltz said he understands Jersey Shore residents would like to take a bus to shop in Lock Haven. Although he has heard a few negative comments, he said, bus service seems like an overwhelmingly positive addition to the county.

The proposed bus service would go to all the senior centers and would be helpful for people who need rides for medical care, it was noted.

Holladay said that with all the good reasons to start a trial, the transit advisory committee still kept circling back to economic development as one of the main motivators.

“Everything has been positive” as the committee has moved forward, Stevenson said.

Flemington Borough Councilman Wayne Allison asked if River Valley would tailor its service, as CATA does in Centre County. Nichols replied that it does that sort of thing as a matter of course, assigning different sized vehicles based on a route’s number of riders, for greater efficiency and the customers’ comfort.

If all goes well, Smeltz said, the county can also consider park-and-ride lots and connections to State College.

Holladay said the transit advisory committee will return to talk about local funding during the commissioners work session on Monday, Dec. 5.

The county, meanwhile, is open to hearing from the general public about the issue, and people may call or send an email.