Vermont Transit’s anniversary marks history of transportation

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(Host) Seventy-five years ago a Burlington car dealer named Bill Appleyard decided to use a bus he couldn’t sell to start his own transit company. Roughly 300 million miles and 45 million passengers later, Appleyard’s bus company is still in business. But much has changed since that first Vermont Transit bus traveled the state’s highways.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) When Vermont Transit began almost by accident in 1929 the state was thick with small, independently operated bus lines. In an era before every family had a car, buses were often the only way to travel between Vermont’s small towns. Jerry Fox is a Burlington historian.

(Fox) “Well into the 1940s, buses were a primary mode of transportation. Most bus lines pretty early on began to expand between just one town and another. For instance, there was a bus line between Burlington and Cambridge and it would stop at all the little towns along Route 15.”

(Zind) Fox says Vermont Transit became the preeminent bus company by buying out many smaller companies. Until the 1970s, Vermont Transit buses still connected scores of small communities. An old article in the Burlington Free Press relates a story about a Vermont Transit driver named Paul Laline who went beyond the call of duty.

(Chris Andreasson) “A boy flagged down the bus and said, ‘Pa wants to go into Burlington with you but he ain’t got his chores done yet.’ So Paul got out and went up to the barn where the farmer told him, ‘I just got two more cows to milk.’ So Paul grabbed a milking stool and milked one cow while the farmer milked the other. Both the farmer and the bus got into Burlington on time.”

(Zind) Chris Andreasson is general manager of Vermont Transit. He started as a driver with the company 30 years ago. Andreasson says as cars began to fill Vermont’s roadways, people found less reason to take the bus.

Vermont Transit remained a family-owned business until it was purchased by Greyhound in 1974. After the industry was deregulated in the 1980s, Vermont Transit dropped many routes and stops – concentrating instead on service between Montreal and Boston.

Andreasson says many of the companies riders are college students, the elderly and vacationers. But when there’s a spike in gas prices others come aboard.

(Andreasson) “We noticed it this summer. In July, gas prices peaked and we saw a pretty good increase in the amount traffic we had on our buses. Gas prices are headed up again.”

(Zind) Vermont Transit operates 40 buses today and employs about 120 people. It’s a smaller company than it was years ago when the sky was literally the limit. In the 1940s Vermont Transit applied to the state to run a helicopter service that would to provide air service to smaller Vermont communities.

The bus industry has suffered in recent years and Vermont Transit is no exception. The company entered this fiscal year facing a $2 million shortfall but Andreasson says recent cuts in routes and the frequency of some buses have closed the gap. More cuts are anticipated.

Andreasson says Vermont Transit fortunes will always be tied to the automobile and whether or not traffic jams and higher gas prices will convince more people to park their cars and take the bus.

(Andreasson) “Nobody likes to see fuel prices staying up, maybe except for me.”

(Zind) A long time ago a newspaper article about Vermont Transit described the company’s plans for the bus of the future: a vehicle with six decks and room for 600 passengers, equipped with shops and a roller skating rink. But 75 years after they began rolling, what’s most different about Vermont Transit buses is the role they occupy in the lives of commuters and travelers.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Montpelier.

Vermont Transit will celebrate it’s 75th anniversary on Friday from 10 until noon at the Pine Street Terminal in Burlington, and later in the day from 4 to 5 pm at the company’s terminal in White River Junction.

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