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On a sunny Friday morning in November, the express bus traveled past New London's Union Station to meet students awaiting the 8:25 a.m. run to Three Rivers Community College in Norwich. Inside the bus, about 10 students looked out the window, read or took a nap before beginning their school day.
"This is quiet and safe," said Carol Balbuena, a freshman who lives in New London.
Before the express route was added, Balbuena would spend two hours on three buses to get to Three Rivers. Now it's a 20-minute ride. She gets to campus at 8:45 a.m., which gives her time to study and print out her homework before her 10 a.m. English class. She sometimes arrives before class starts to ask the professor questions.
"It's very convenient," added her friend, Tylea Banks, a sophomore from New London.
The $2.50 Southeast Area Transit express fare is pricier than a regular route. But Banks said it's much cheaper for students than driving and paying $3-plus per gallon at the gas pump.
"If it weren't for the bus, we wouldn't be there," Balbuena said.
Balbuena became involved with the college's transportation advisory committee, which Banks also serves on, after having some difficulty getting to class. Balbuena, who plans to become an attorney, said she has heard of many students who had dropped out of the college because they didn't have access to transportation.
SEAT began the express service from New London and Groton to Three Rivers on a trial basis in September. The express bus, which ends at Mohegan Sun, makes three runs from Groton - morning, mid-morning and afternoon - and two afternoon runs from the casino.
The service continues to build ridership and is awaiting news about future funding, which college administrators and SEAT representatives are hoping will be available.
Meg Wichser, the college's transition and retention specialist, said some students had reported in college surveys that they were having a difficult time getting to class on public transportation.
The bus has carried 1,340 passengers since beginning the run in September through the third week in November, according to SEAT data. The express route is still building ridership, Wichser said, but the college community has taken steps to make it easier for students to access the new service. For example, the school began selling bus passes on campus and tweaked the route in early October to help pick up more students.
Bus ridership has been growing since its inception, and Wichser believes that will continue. "We're hopeful and anticipating it will in the next semester," she said.
For one thing, Wichser said, word is now out about the service. In addition, the new service started after students had signed up for their classes this semester, but next semester students may arrange their schedules to allow them to take the express route.
SEAT, which the state assumed management of last winter, is hoping it will receive funding from the state to offset the approximately $90,000 cost of the express route for the fall and spring semesters.
"We're guardedly optimistic," said Michael Carroll, SEAT's general manager.
Three Rivers has offered a $10,000 grant for the service out of money set aside for transportation in its budget. The student government contributed about $3,000, and faculty and staff offered $500 for scholarships offering reduced bus fares, said Jacqueline Phillips, the college's director of student development.
For future years, SEAT would need to see if it can roll the service into its existing budget or if it would seek subsidies from the college, Carroll said.
SEAT is not the only transit district meeting the demand of college students. The Estuary Transit District, also known as 9 Town Transit, has increased service on a route from Old Saybrook to Middletown, a bus popular with students attending Middlesex Community College. The district increased hours in spring 2012, in part to meet times that would coincide with student use, said Executive Director Joseph Comerford.
"This year has been great, and the students are a big part of it," Comerford said. "They're not the only people who use it, but the student ridership has really grown."
Three Rivers is looking at the "whole picture" of transportation and remains in discussions with SEAT on whether there are any routes that can be tweaked to help students in other areas get to class, said Wichser. "The whole project has really shone a light on the needs," she said.
Banks and Balbuena have ideas about shifting the route to areas that could also serve local employees and increasing the number of people who take the bus. "I think Three Rivers is going above and beyond being a community college," said Banks toward the end of the ride. "We have a bus with our name on it. I think this is going to be our legacy."