Essex County expands bus routes
ELIZABETHTOWN — Bonnie Williams travels from Lewis to Saranac Lake — and back again — three times a day, five days a week.
“Two hundred and twenty-five miles a day,” she said with a smile on Monday, March 20, weaving an 18-passenger bus through the High Peaks.
Williams is a bus driver for the Essex County Public Transportation system, and she likes what she does — especially when it’s not snowing. She drives the department’s “Cascade Express” route, a bus line that was recently expanded to make a third trip out to Saranac Lake from Lewis every Monday through Friday. ECPT also expanded its “Mountain Valley Shuttle” to make more stops between AuSable Forks and Lake Placid.
The changes come on the heels of the coronavirus pandemic and a survey from ECPT that, over the last year, has gathered input about route changes from potential and existing riders. People can still fill out the transportation survey at https://tinyurl.com/sjssnuvb.
The new schedules for the Cascade Express and Mountain Valley Shuttle, along with the rest of ECPT’s bus and shuttle routes, are available at essexcountyny.gov/transportation. The changes went into effect on March 13.
Public transportation in Essex County hasn’t been the same since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Doreen Abrahamsen, Essex County Public Transportation coordinator. ECPT couldn’t run its public routes for nearly a year because of guidelines set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though bus drivers were able to continue working for the county doing UV cleaning. The bus also made some emergency trips as the pandemic pressed on, transporting some people to get their COVID-19 vaccinations and bringing supplies to schools for the Women, Infants and Children — or WIC — program.
Though ECPT started a reservation-only shopper’s route in the fall of 2020 in areas that formerly had public routes so people could get medication and food — a twice-monthly route stopping at stores between Elizabethtown and Saranac Lake that’s still in service — Abrahamsen said the county’s public transportation didn’t return to full service until April of 2021. Now, three years after the pandemic started, Abrahamsen the total number of people who ride ECPT’s bus lines per year is still climbing back up to pre-COVID numbers.
The Cascade Express carried 1,727 passengers in 2019. In 2022, the Cascade line saw 1,040 passengers. The Mountain Valley Shuttle — which is transitioned for use as a ski shuttle during winter months — carried 1,076 passengers from April 1 to Dec. 10, 2019. In 2022, the Mountain Valley Shuttle saw 1,319 passengers.
That ridership data isn’t completely clear-cut because COVID-19 protocols and staffing issues necessitated route changes, according to Abrahamsen, but she sees the numbers as proof that ridership is rising as people get more comfortable with returning to public transportation. Abrahamsen said the bus route expansions are an effort to address both ridership increases and “lulls” in ridership at the stops along the Moutain Valley and Cascade Express lines.
Abrahamsen said there’s not a lot of ridership to and from the Saranac Lake stop on the Cascade Express, and she hopes that adding another trip there will boost the number of people who catch the Cascade Express. There’s also a “need” for expansion on the Cascade line, according to Abrahamsen, who said that Essex County’s social services department recommended another stop in Saranac Lake to better serve people who use the county’s social services. Meanwhile, Abrahamsen said more passengers have been making trips between AuSable and Lake Placid, which has necessitated the expansions there.
Williams started driving for the Essex County bus system more than three years ago, just before the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Williams believes the number of people who use her bus route is “about the same” now as it was during the pandemic. On her first Monday run from Saranac Lake to Lewis, she only had two passengers — one of whom was this News reporter.
The county’s four regular bus routes — the Mountain Valley, the Cascade Express, the Champlain North and the Champlain South lines — start at the county Department of Public Works in Lewis and have destinations in Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, Keeseville and Ticonderoga, among others. Shuttle service is also provided within the village of Lake Placid via the free Lake Placid XPRSS. The seasonal Whiteface Ski Shuttle also takes workers and skiers to Whiteface Ski Center in Wilmington during select winter months — a shuttle that’s been popular this season, though that service ends for the season this week.
Abrahamsen said the department is looking at adding another shoppers route, but, like many other employers across the North Country, Abrahamsen is having a hard time staffing her department. ECT can’t find the bus drivers to drive additional lines. Abrahamsen said it was “all (she) could do” to get through the FISU Winter World University Games in January, the ski season and through other winter sports competitions in the area.
“We’re always looking for drivers,” she said.
Abrahamsen said a lot of the department’s manpower has gone to the state Route 73 hiker shuttle the ECT operates with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the town of Keene and the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, as well as ski shuttles to the Whiteface Mountain Ski Center for the state Olympic Regional Development Authority in the winter. It looks like ECPT will have to continue supplying drivers for these shuttles in the future, too — the hiker shuttle is currently expected to get a two-year extension from the DEC, according to a DEC spokesperson.
Williams doesn’t have too many regular riders — a couple here and there, she said. But one rider, Scott Mitchell — a passenger on the March 20 morning run from Saranac Lake to Elizabethtown — said he’s used the bus system “quite a bit” over the last few years to stay connected with family in both places.
A longtime Elizabethtown resident, Mitchell recently moved to Lake Placid. He wanted to be closer to his kids, who he said “harped” on him for years to move to the area. They have their own kids now, and Mitchell joked that he’s their “free babysitter.” He still needs to get back to Elizabethtown sometimes — his parents and brothers live there, and he still does some work there — but he doesn’t have a license. He said the bus keeps him connected to the disparate pieces of his family, as well as with some job opportunities he can’t always find locally. Mitchell said the bus comes in handy, especially as someone living and working in a rural area.
The bus runs rain, snow or shine. Though the sun rose over the mountains on March 20 as the bus traveled along state Route 73 between North Elba and Keene, Williams and Mitchell said they have traveled through whiteout conditions together throughout the winter. The bus grips to the road “surprisingly well,” Mitchell said.
“I was still able to sleep like a baby on the way up,” he added.