Sen. Patrick Leahy speaks at the opening of the GMT’s downtown transit center. (Photo by Jason Starr)

Sen. Patrick Leahy speaks at the opening of the GMT’s downtown transit center. (Photo by Jason Starr)

Green Mountain Transit unveiled its new downtown transit center this month, a regional hub of bus travel that is a striking improvement over the 35-year-old bus stop it replaces.

The new center was built over the past year in the middle of St. Paul Street in Burlington, around the corner from the former Cherry Street stop. It will be a terminal and departure point for city, county, commuter and regional buses, most operated by GMT. Greyhound and Megabus will also use the facility for their Boston and New York City services.

Nearly 100 people joined Mayor Miro Weinberger, Rep. Peter Welch and Sen. Patrick Leahy to usher the facility into service. With a heated indoor waiting room, covered outdoor boarding area, customer service agent, wifi, marquees and a driver break room, the transit center properly reflects the community’s commitment to public transportation, Weinberger said.

The former bus stop “did not have the amenities, the dignity or the quality it should have,” he said. “It’s been a long time coming … We finally got it done.”

Weinberger lauded the work of Aaron Frank, CFO at the town of Colchester. Before joining the town’s administrative team, Frank was assistant general manager at the Chittenden County Transit Authority — the entity that rebranded to GMT earlier this year — who carried out a search for the optimal transit center site. He analyzed nearly 40 possible sites, including one by the Burlington waterfront, before bringing the St. Paul Street location to the forefront.

“This stood out as the one with the clearest path to conclusion,” Weinberger said, noting it’s located in the city-owned right-of-way.

The city transferred a federal earmark to CCTA to move forward with construction, Vermont Agency of Transportation Secretary Brian Searles said. 

“This facility is going to serve generations and generations of Vermonters and non-Vermonters,” Congressman Welch said.

The transit center will be the pickup and dropoff point for Colchester’s two-year-old Route 7 bus route, which is operated on a three-year contract with GMT and the town of Milton, where the bus begins and ends.

To increase ridership, the bus re-routed in September to make a loop through the Birchwood Park mobile home neighborhood in Milton, according to John Sharrow, the Milton representative on the GMT board of directors.

“That’s an area that really needs the service. I’m really happy we have that started,” he said.

Sharrow plans a marketing push to increase awareness of the service among Birchwood residents, including distributing free bus passes and touting GMT’s new smartphone app that tracks buses in real time.

The bus makes six daily round-trips to Burlington, with four Milton stops and four Colchester stops. The Colchester stops were added in 2014 to an existing commuter express from Milton that travelled on Interstate 89.

Lower gas prices have cut into transit ridership nationwide, Sharrow said, and the Milton-Colchester bus has seen about a 15 percent decline in recent years.

According to GMT planners, the Creek Farm Plaza stop is Colchester’s most used at about 80 people per month. That amounts to an average of less than three people per day, over all six trips. The Severance Corners stop has attracted about 62 people per month, while the Mountain View Drive stop has attracted roughly 12 riders per month.

In a visit with the Colchester Selectboard last summer, CCTA’s Meredith Birkett noted the route is 80 percent funded with a federal congestion mitigation and air quality grant, with the towns splitting the 20 percent local contribution. If the route continues past 2017, funding will have to come from state and local sources, she said.

“If you can show the possibility of future growth, it will be extended,” Sharrow said. “I’m very confident the Milton-Colchester [route] will survive.”