Drug worries cited for lack of support for bus route test

LOCK HAVEN – The Clinton County commissioners offered a sober assessment to proponents of a plan to offer a trial public bus route connecting the Lock Haven area to Jersey Shore and Williamsport.

While outlining the many potential negatives to the plan, the commissioners on Monday said they would take no position if the company wants to move forward – but likewise will offer no county taxpayer dollars in support of a test run of the system.

Basically, the board said if public transit is an idea whose time has come to Clinton County, it will arrive without any of the county’s tax money.

Several figures were mentioned in meetings held in the middle of January, but the consensus appeared to be that local municipalities, including the county, would have to kick in about $20,000 by way of investing into a test of the system.

On Monday, commissioners Joel Long, Jeff Snyder and Pete Smeltz suggested that public support of the concept was not there at this time.

The comments were extremely disappointing to Lock Haven Mayor Rick Vilello, who attended Monday’s session at the commissioners’ request and who has been an ardent supporter of the idea.

Smeltz offered an apology at the beginning of the session, saying he had indicated a level of support at earlier meetings, but has since come to the conclusion that it is not yet time to commit county dollars. He said his intent was not to “ambush” Vilello, but it was clear the commissioners reached their conclusion before hearing the mayor’s response Monday.

One of the big sticking points for the board was the initial cost for a three-month trial proposed by the Williamsport-based River Valley Transit, in the neighborhood of $15,000 to $20,000.

Another was the potential for providing a conduit for crime and drug trafficking, and while board members said they have no data to support that possibility, they were told by other public officials, and particularly by law enforcement representatives, that the public transit system would contribute to that social ill.

The discussion was actually an outgrowth of two public forums sponsored by River Valley, by way of offering a transparent view of the company’s plans to local officials and to garner public support.

“Not interested,” Snyder said. “As far as River Valley Transit’s plan is concerned, I’m out.”

Snyder said the bus system would benefit Lock Haven University, and yet the university didn’t come forward with any financial support, either for an in-place transit system or a trial run.

Smeltz noted that the yearly expense appears to far exceed what a trial run might cost, law enforcement representatives have raised concerns and the public has weighed in against the plan.

“We are always going to hear the squeaky wheels,” Vilello said, “but I’m really disappointed for myself.”

Vilello said it was the responsibility of leaders to look at the long-term benefits. He said that RVT already is serving 28 municipalities in Lycoming County and Clinton County was “missing the boat” by focusing on fears instead of reality.

“Our drugs aren’t coming from Williamsport,” he said. “They are coming from Reading, New York, Philadelphia and Lancaster. We are always going to hear the negative, but in areas that are growing, one of the key figures is public transportation. We are missing an opportunity.”

Vilello dismissed the idea of drug dealers traveling by bus to sell illegal narcotics in Lock Haven, and said the idea of some dealer paying a fare, jumping on a surveillance-camera-equipped bus and then plying his or her trade locally is fairly ridiculous.

Some local officials have said a public bus system could help local businesses, the job market and the university by connecting Jersey Shore, Lock Haven, Williamsport, other parts of Lycoming County and several commercial and business centers in Clinton County.

The idea was sparked in discussions with Lock Haven University, with the indication that students in the Williamsport area could have easier access to the university with a bus system in place to take them from school to home.