Saturday March 16, 2013

VERNON -- As the longtime driver of Vernon's town bus, Eleanor "Cookie" Allen notes two troubling trends -- a dwindling number of riders and a lingering perception that only seniors can use the service.

Allen is hoping to address both of those issues with a Selectboard-backed publicity campaign and an attempt to solicit input from potential riders.

"We're just looking for ideas," Allen said.

The bus service provides free rides several times a week to area shopping spots and appointments and also transports residents to lunches, dinners and other events.

Examples of destinations on the March schedule include Brattleboro grocery stores, Wal-Mart, Holyoke Mall, lunch in Dummerston and the Guilford Sugar on Snow Supper.

"When we set up the calendar, the calendar is set up with basics. Every Wednesday is grocery shopping," Allen said, adding that "we've tried to do theater, we've tried to do some meals."

But there have to be at least three riders for the 16-passenger bus to roll. And Allen is seeing fewer and fewer people sign up for rides: She said the bus is full only about twice a year.

"At this point, we've lost a lot of people, if you've read the obits, and a lot of people have left," Allen told Vernon Selectboard this week. "And so that we don't get down to totally not taking the bus out because we don't have anybody to ride it, I was told to ask the Selectboard for help."

Part of the problem, Allen said, is the widespread misconception that the bus is only for seniors when, in fact, it is open to all.

"It is a town bus, and we're looking for more people to ride it," she said.

Allen asked whether Vernon Elementary School students might be able to create posters promoting the town bus. She also requested assistance in distributing a flier or questionnaire advertising the bus and requesting feedback on potential destinations.

While warning that the vehicle is "not a tour bus," Allen said its routes could be modified to fit residents' needs.

"I'm pretty much open to do a lot of different things," she said.

Selectboard members were supportive of the ideas, with Chairwoman Patty O'Donnell also offering to contact local Girl Scouts to possibly help with the campaign.

"I don't think it's a bad idea - why have an empty bus going in and out of town?" O'Donnell said.

Town bus schedules are available at the town office, post office, store and other locations. Riders must sign up for trips in advance, and they can do so by calling Allen at 802-257-1275.

"I have to hear from them within 24 hours of the time of departure," she said.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.