RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
There is little question that rising gas prices are making life miserable for lots of motorists. But for small rural transit systems, it's both good and bad news. Good because it brings more riders on board. Bad because the cost of transporting them is busting budgets. Charlotte Albright from Vermont Public Radio has this report.
CHARLOTTE ALBRIGHT, BYLINE: It stands to reason - and there's data to prove it - that rural Americans on average drive more than their urban counterparts. But what if they don't have cars or can't afford gas?
This bright red van, operated by Rural Community Transportation based in St Johnsbury, Vermont, is literally a free ride for up to 20 usually sociable riders. Regulars Charlotte Piadade and Beverly Withers live in the same affordable housing project and always sit together. Piadade is 88, a three-time cancer survivor, and a widow.
CHARLOTTE PIADADE: We ride all day and sometimes we don't get off and sometimes we just get off somewhere and go to the bank or somewhere like that. We're going stop at the grocery store today.
BEVERLY WITHERS: Then we have a community lunch we go to Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
ALBRIGHT: A few seats behind them, 22-year-old Kristen Fenoff is doubly dependent on this bus.
KRISTEN FENOFF: My grandmother watches my son while I go to work. She'll take the bus from her house to my house, and then I hop on the bus and head to work. It's my only means of transportation.
ALBRIGHT: RCT is the only public transportation available in this sparsely populated corner of northern Vermont, where winter driving is often treacherous. In addition to fixed bus routes, there are minivans driven by volunteers largely for people who need to get to medical and social services.
There are 12 other heavily subsidized systems like this one in Vermont that depend on both state and local funding. Many routes are free, but others can cost as much as three dollars a ride.
During the hour and a half round-trip route around St. Johnsbury, an older man named Lyle climbs on and briefly jumps off at the post office while the bus waits for him to check his box. He got his nickname - Post Office - from Christine Maddox, a talkative redhead wearing a silk brocade vest over a down coat.
CHRISTINE MADDOX: I love riding the bus. I've never owned an automobile and I've always taken the bus.
ALBRIGHT: This mobile melting pot is typical of similar systems gaining ridership throughout the country. Jill Hough directs the Small Urban and Rural Transit Center at North Dakota State University.
JILL HOUGH: Some of the people are literally, they would be qualified to be institutionalized or moved to a nursing home, and because there is public transit service or also some meal service, they can stay in their homes.
ALBRIGHT: Others are commuters leaving their gas-hungry cars at home. In Vermont, new buses to the state capitol are filling up fast. But those longer, regional trips also gobble up more gas.
DAVID TOWLE: So far we've just bit the bullet and squeezed the pennies hard and have been able to provide good service to the routes that are working.
ALBRIGHT: That's David Towle, Operations Manager for RCT. He's says he's applying to the state for help to cover rising gas prices. And he's also watching transportation bills that fund rural services move slowly through Congress. But he says cutting routes is not an option because too many people depend on them.
For NPR News, I'm Charlotte Albright in Lyndonville, Vermont.
MONTAGNE: And if you'd like to find out more about what's behind gas prices, go to npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.