College Connector contracts to be renewed

NYSARC bus drivers Jan Webber, left, and Bryan Watson talk next to their buses in the midtown plaza in Canton. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

CANTON — Just before the COVID-19 pandemic gained traction in the north country, St. Lawrence County’s public transportation system documented record bus ridership. But those figures fell sharply once the county paused, college students left residence halls vacant and community members began making local trips only for essentials.

After seeing declining and stagnating ridership figures, the county Planning Department is looking toward the summer-to-fall transition and the full realization of the region’s Phase IV reopening.

“The first quarter of this particular year had the highest ridership numbers in the history of the system,” said county planner and transportation manager Matilda M. Larson during a presentation to the county Finance Committee last week. “We are hoping to see a rise in numbers with Phase 4 opening and with the schools in the area planning to reopen in the fall.”

Passed by the county Finance Committee June 29, a resolution approving the renewal of four separate contracts with St. Lawrence County universities for public transportation on the College Connector routes passed the full county Board of Legislators during its regular meeting Monday night.

The resolution outlines a four-year contract renewal, through July 31, 2024, for each of the county’s four higher education institutions, Clarkson University, SUNY Potsdam, SUNY Canton and St. Lawrence University, though SLU has indicated to the county it will not be participating in the renewal at this time due to its own financial uncertainties, Ms. Larson said.

In February, the county recorded 9,800 total one-way trips, which dropped by about one-third to some 6,100 trips in March. And by April, the trip figures were at about 1,500. The first half of June, Ms. Larson said, saw an increase to about 2,800 trips.

As a COVID-19 precaution, the county public transit fleet has undergone routine disinfections and has been outfitted with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mask, handwashing and social distancing reminder signs.

Since the College Connector routes were temporarily discontinued mid-spring, a decrease in college student riderships has had a major impact on overall transit use, Ms. Larson said.

Redesigning its operations to reflect pandemic public health measures, the county transportation system began offering a dial-a-ride service for essential needs. The service allowed community members to schedule rides during specified timeframes and be transported to places of employment, grocery stores, pharmacies or medical appointments. County transit also assisted Massena Central School District with delivering school meals to families unable to travel to meal pickup sites.

Previously facilitated by the universities and the transit provider itself, the College Connector contract is now managed by the county, as required by the state Department of Transportation.

Typically, about two-thirds of the county bus system’s operating budget is funded by New York State Transportation Operating Aid, or STOA, Ms. Larson said. About 10% of the operating budget is federally funded, 18% is funded by the combined contributions of the universities through the College Connector program and the remaining 10% is covered by bus route revenue.

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