Report recommends continuing bus service between Concord, Manchester
Yesterday was Stefani Thacker’s first day riding the bus between her home in downtown Manchester and a new job in downtown Concord.
“It was a straight shot,” Thacker said yesterday, just before heading home again on the 5 p.m. bus out of the North Main Street stop.
“Hopefully, they’re all that smooth,” she said.
She’ll have the chance to find out. Thacker, 25, is about to start a three-month clinical rotation at the HealthSafe Rehabilitation Hospital on Pleasant Street, but she lives in Manchester and shares a car with her boyfriend. So yesterday wouldn’t be her last ride on the Concord Express.
“Every day for the next three months,” she said.
The bus that will carry Thacker to and from work is part of a 7-month-old pilot program, which will run out of federal money this fall. Operated by the Manchester Transit Authority, the Concord Express runs between New Hampshire’s capital and its largest city.
And after a recent feasibility study, the central and southern New Hampshire planning commissions have recommended that the bus service continue long term – but without a direct route between Concord and the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, which was discontinued in February.
Their final report will now be reviewed by state officials, who will eventually make a decision on continuing the Concord Express beyond the end of the pilot in September.
“I think the report has demonstrated that there is a demand for a transit service in the corridor” between Concord and Manchester, said Tim White, principal transportation planner for the Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission.
When the bus started running in July, the Manchester Transit Authority was making 12 trips between Concord and the airport, with a stop at the Radisson on Elm Street in Manchester.
“We assumed the demand might be focused on the need for better services at the airport,” White said.
But MTA Executive Director Mike Whitten said not enough riders were traveling between Concord and the airport to keep that bus running. In the fall, almost 66 percent of riders were traveling just between the two downtowns, according to the report. So the MTA changed the Concord Express schedule in February, shifting its focus to commuters with seven trips between downtown Manchester and Concord.
“There probably isn’t sufficient demand for a Concord-to-airport direct bus, but there is enough demand to warrant service connecting the downtowns between Concord and Manchester,” Whitten said.
“I think the focus needs to be on job access.”
Ridership on the Concord Express peaked in October at 1,148 passengers, according to the report. Whitten said any riders who are bound for the airport can still take a bus there. Another route from downtown Manchester goes to Manchester-Boston Regional.
“Once you travel from Concord to downtown Manchester, most of the time, you can stay on the same bus,” he said of that transfer.
The Concord Express stops at Stickney Avenue and on North Main Street, and the price for a round-trip day pass is $4. The recommended plan would link downtown Manchester and downtown Concord, with an additional loop through the state offices on Hazen Drive during peak commuter hours. Whitten said he would recommend charging $5 for a day pass.
The report from the planning commissions will now go to the state Department of Transportation.
“We’re going to review the study here in house,” said Patrick Herlihy, the state’s director of aeronautics, rail and transit.
If officials decide to continue the transit system, Herlihy said a contract to operate the buses would be put out to bid. The governor and the Executive Council would need to put a final stamp of approval on that contract before any buses pull out of the station.
“If there is a recommendation for some services to operate through the system, we’d have to identify the funding sources,” Herlihy said.
More federal dollars for the intercity bus service could be available for both the Concord Area Transit and the Manchester Transit Authority, but those grants would call for some matching money from the local community.
“Our challenge has always been finding the local match, finding the matching funds for the federal grant,” Whitten said. “I think we need to recognize that people need to travel beyond the borders of the city they live in.”
But the riders will have real weight in this decision-making process, Whitten said.
“People need to keep using the bus,” Whitten said. “If people use the service, there’s no better way to demonstrate to the people that hold the purse strings that this is an appropriate use of funds.”
Whitten said he wants the Concord Express to keep running, and he wants the MTA to be involved. But if no one is riding, he said that will to operate the service could disappear.
“I have no appetite whatsoever for running a big empty bus around town,” he said.
For the full Concord Express schedule, visit mtabus.org. To read the final report on the transit study, visit snhpc.org and click the link titled “Concord-Manchester Transit Feasibility Study” under the latest news and information.
(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or email@example.com or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)