New bus option opens for New London, Groton students attending Three Rivers

Preston - The Southeast Area Transit board voted Wednesday to add an express bus that will provide direct transit from Groton and New London to Three Rivers Community College.

The hope is that the bus, which is expected to begin running Tuesday, will provide more efficient transportation for students from the Groton-New London area.

The express bus will run four times a day, five days a week, from about 7:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. The bus schedule will better line up with the start times of core classes at Three Rivers, thereby eliminating some of the long waits students who currently take the bus have to endure before the start of class.

The board approved the express bus on a trial basis and will measure how many passengers use the service monthly. If passenger targets are not met, the board may decide to terminate the service.

Meg Wichser, Three Rivers' retention specialist and grant director, said she knows students in Groton and New London need this service. It's just a matter of getting the word out, she said.

"We have to publicize it fast and aggressively because school has started, and we are going to work very hard to make it happen," she said.

The first day of classes at Three Rivers was Monday.

SEAT Manager Michael J. Carroll said the express bus service is expected to cost SEAT $43,784 each four-month semester. For the service to be self-sufficient, there would need to be 274 passengers a semester, he said.

Board members said they would like to see about 69 passengers, or 25 percent of 274 passengers, in the first month and see the number of passengers grow to 274 incrementally over the following three months.

Three Rivers has about 5,000 students, and about 1,000 come from the Groton and New London area, Wichser said. About 62 percent of those Groton and New London students are Pell Grant or need-based federal grant recipients, she added. Because of that, Winchser said she believed there could be up to 500 bus riders, which would satisfy the 274-passenger requirement.

Three Rivers might provide $10,000 over the semester time period with funds from a Connecticut Department of Higher Education grant, Winchser said. The grant is to support minority students and students with socioeconomic needs, she said.

In response to a question from board Chairman Paul Altman, Carroll said he has asked the state Department of Transportation about possible funding but has not yet received a commitment.

In March, the DOT took over SEAT's management at the request of the nine towns SEAT serves.

Altman also asked whether the two municipalities would support the service, to which New London board representative Margaret Curtin said no.

"We just had a referendum - we don't have a budget," Curtin said. Residents in New London rejected the city's 2013-14 budget and proposed tax rate earlier this month.

Three Rivers staff have spoken to local and state officials and been working on getting a better bus route for more than 10 years, Wichser said.

One of the main reasons students drop out of school is because of lack of transportation, she said. Someone might be driving a carpool of four students and then their car breaks down and the students miss school and end up dropping out, she said.

Jacqueline Philips, director of student development and services at Three Rivers, said if the express bus is successful, school enrollment in January could increase. She said she speaks with high school counselors regularly who tell her they have interested students but that they say they can't enroll because of transportation issues.

The board on Wednesday also voted to charge $2.50 for a one-way trip on the express bus as opposed to the current one-way $2 bus fare from Groton to Norwich.

The express bus will stop at: Poquonnock Road in Groton, New London High School, New London Transportation Center, Mohegan Sun and Three Rivers.

j.somers@theday.com

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