After several years of brainstorming, a public transit bus is set to launch in the Town of Bedford.
The Otter Bus — a fitting name for a transit service serving the community near the Peaks of Otter — will operate regularly from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays starting Sept. 1.
The public transit system, in an effort led by the Bedford Community Health Foundation, will provide rides in a loop through the Town of Bedford.
The currently planned route will make a loop through the town of Bedford and will include stops at or near the YMCA, a laundromat, the Bedford County Administration Building and Department of Social Services on Main Street, Food Lion and Elba’s, the local hospital, Horizon Behavioral Health, the Bedford farmers market pavilion, the plaza, including Walmart and a Department of Motor Vehicles office. Saturday routes will include stops at Liberty Lake Park, Falling Creek Park and the National D-Day Memorial.
Passengers on the Otter Bus will be required to wear masks on the bus due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, per public transit health guidelines, though seating will be offered at full capacity.
For the first six months of the program, there will be no fee for riders. Any future riding fees to help support the transit system will be determined by usage, demand and related factors.
The ultimate success and future of the program will depend on its use.
“Transportation is a health issue,” said Denny Huff, executive director of the Bedford Community Health Foundation.
Every few years, BCHF and other local organizations serving the public conduct community needs assessment surveys from Centra Health systems, Huff said. The survey gathers feedback from community members that help identify local needs for services. For the past several years, Huff said the community highlighted the need for public transportation.
“They were looking at things where we had some gaps in community health, and it kept coming back to access, whether it was access to food, access to healthcare, access to transportation,” said Mary Zirkle, economic development coordinator with the Town of Bedford. “It really ended up hinging on, people couldn’t get where they needed to be to access whatever it was. Helping people connect the dots with transportation can solve a lot of issues in the community.”
A transportation committee was formed at BCHF to focus on how to meet the need, Huff said. BCHF is funding the $50,000 endeavor, and will seek grants for future support.
“Transportation has been identified as a need by the folks who complete the survey, which are all Bedford County citizens. It’s been on there for the past several years, and we’ve been working on it for a number of years, as well, but now we’re at a spot to where we think we can make some improvements in that area,” Huff said.
BCHF contracted Vinton-based transportation company RideSource to operate the bus system, using RideSource’s service to supply the 21-passenger vehicle and drivers. Depending on community response and the popularity of a local public transit system in Bedford, Huff said the eventual goal is to obtain buses of the organization’s own, with help from grant funding and sponsors.
Though BCHF is spearheading the transportation initiative, the move represents a collaboration with the Town of Bedford, RideSource and other local organizations.
Bedford Town Manager Bart Warner said the town will provide bus stop signage and other infrastructure services related to the Otter Bus system, calling the development “exciting” for the town.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a limited pilot run of the town transit program was operated in conjunction with Bedford County Parks and Recreation to gauge general interest and viability, Huff and Zirkle said.
The pilot run serviced low-income areas of town, and Huff said a core group of riders developed in those areas. After the pilot program ended, he said many calls came in asking when the public transit service would be returning.
Residents from other locations in town also asked about when they could use the service, he said. The interest shown during the limited trial run seemed promising.
“The plan was to try to get this going, obviously, before now, but the pandemic delayed us in our process. Now we’re going to roll it out,” Huff said.
Huff hopes to eventually expand the operation to six days per week.
Once the program is underway, conversations will be held with riders where the community can offer feedback, ideas for improvement and share thoughts on whether the bus route goes everywhere it needs to.
Zirkle said the route is intended to connect the dots between important resources of medical services, food, laundry and other key needs. The stops will be fine-tuned based on rider feedback and finding out where the greatest access needs lie.
“This is really going to be rider-driven,” Huff said. “These folks are the ones that have the needs, so we’re going to do everything we can, within reason, to make sure that they have access to the resources that they’re telling us they need.”