BURLINGTON — Before the bus was free, Bowie Bouchard was more economical getting around town.
If the 34-year-old needed to visit the University Mall, for example, he would shell out 75 cents for a bus ride to that mall in South Burlington. On the way back, however, he would take his bike, as the way back had fewer climbs.
But with the advent of free public transit — a pandemic-era subsidy extended by the state legislature — Bouchard is more likely to take the bus whenever it’s more convenient, he said. he told VTDigger as he strapped his bike to the front of an outgoing 6. Thursday morning bus.
Bouchard is not alone among regular users of Green Mountain Transit. By forgoing the once-common rituals of coughing up change or buying a monthly bus pass, commuters in Chittenden County and beyond are finding extra money in their pocket.
“It’s helped me save $20 a month,” said Rebecca Aberl, 46, a New North End resident who takes the 7 bus to get groceries and medical appointments.
Still, other runners say the $1.7 million needed to keep the program statewide for another year should be allocated to make the service more frequent.
Those calls have grown louder in areas served by Green Mountain Transit, after the bus system recently announced service cuts on three of its routes as a cost-cutting tactic. Officials initially said the cuts would be temporary, but have since said they would become permanent.
Under the proposed changes, the 6 bus (which runs up and down Route 7, also known as Shelburne Road) and the 7 bus (which carries passengers back and forth along North Avenue in Burlington) would run every half-hours, instead of every 20 minutes during the week.
A commuter bus between Burlington and Montpelier would also run four fewer times a day, as ridership on the route dropped 30% during the pandemic, officials said.
But it’s the bus system’s weekend service on both Chittenden County routes that bothers 70-year-old Burlington resident Bob Miller the most. Miller takes the bus to work on Saturdays and some Sundays, and the hour and a quarter gap between buses on Sundays makes her commute less convenient.
While he appreciates the free ride, Miller said, he’d rather see the transit money fill service gaps like the one he experiences on weekends.
Miller acknowledges that his situation is not universal. When he goes to work on Saturday mornings, he is sometimes alone on board, he says.
“I understand it’s not good economically,” Miller said. “But it’s good for me.”
Miller was one of many passengers who spoke to a VTDigger reporter on buses 6 and 7 Thursday morning. Another was Frederick Royce, an 81-year-old resident of Heineberg Senior Housing in Burlington’s New North End.
Royce told VTDigger he’s not a fan of service cuts because the bus is his only way to get downtown.
“That may mean I won’t be able to do the same,” he said.
Most, but not all, of the passengers who spoke to VTDigger relied on Green Mountain Transit buses as their primary mode of transportation.
Transit riders VTDigger spoke to who owned cars, like Burlington resident Damion Kristoo, said they preferred free service to more frequent availability. Kristoo got picked up on the bus Thursday to pick up his truck from a repair shop.
Shelburne resident Malik Mines also owns a car but usually takes the bus to work. The 26-year-old likes the free service, he said, but not necessarily because it’s cheaper.
“It’s just more convenient not to be looking for change or going to buy a bus pass,” Mines told VTDigger.
Some local transportation analysts argue that the free buses should stay for people like Mines.
For Green Mountain Transit to increase ridership to pre-pandemic levels, free will be more effective at attracting new passengers than more frequent service, said state Rep. Curt McCormack, D-Burlington, who sits in the House Transportation Committee and does not own a car.
Yet the argument between free and more frequent service obscures a more fundamental question — how Green Mountain Transit will manage to provide service at a time when fuel prices are outstripping the system’s efforts to cut costs.
Planned service cuts, for example, are expected to save the transit service $250,000, said Jon Moore, executive director of Green Mountain Transit. But if the recent spike in oil prices continues, the company could exceed its fuel budget by $400,000 in the coming year, he said.
A study published last year cites the uneven funding of the transit system as the source of its financial problems. The service receives most of its funds from cities that choose to contribute, rather than from a state fund.
But while a state fund would help stabilize utility finances, it would require cities that don’t get Green Mountain Transit services to contribute — a concept that doesn’t sit well with some state lawmakers.
Some passengers who spoke to VTDigger on Thursday said they wouldn’t mind if Green Mountain Transit reinstated fare collection.
One is Kimberly Clark, a 46-year-old Burlington resident who says she rides the 7 bus every day. Clark bought a monthly pass the day before Green Mountain Transit was free, she said, and was dying to redeem her purchase.
“I’d rather pay the money,” Clark told VTDigger. “I’ve been using a bus pass since 1999.”
While Green Mountain Transit officials say ridership is down throughout the system, Clark sometimes struggles to find a seat on the 7 bus in the morning and mid-afternoon, when students in the Burlington High School are moving out of their new downtown learning space.
Burlington High School student Bailey Kingsbury, 17, said Thursday morning that she would like the bus system to prioritize free service over more frequent buses.
Bill Worthen, 81, agreed with her. The Burlington resident has been using the bus every day for years, and while he thinks the fares offered by Green Mountain Transit were reasonable, he would appreciate the continuation of the free service.
“It’s amazing,” Worthen said. “How can you beat a free bus?”