You can’t get there from here

(Photo by Will Dendis)

Summer is in its last glorious hurrah, and Labor Day Weekend is just around the corner. There’s corn on the cob and ripe tomatoes and live music every weekend. Tourists are flocking to the hills for one last dip in a cool Catskills stream before school starts up again.

What a perfect time to shut down a local bus stop.

Since August 10, Trailways hasn’t been picking up passengers in front of the Margaretville Motel, a humble Route 28 landmark that has been a stop on their route for years. As of August 31, they won’t drop them off there either.

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The bus will still make stops in Arkville — about two miles from downtown Margaretville, as the suitcase schleps. The Arkville stop doesn’t really have an address, but there’s a bench. None of this information is on the Trailways website, which is still listing Margaretville as a stop, but the local rumor mill has been all over it.

As for a new Margaretville stop, Trailways is working on it. Maybe.

“It’s up in the air at this point, they’re trying to find a new agent,” said a Trailways employee on the Customer Care line, which I called after failing to rouse anybody there who was officially in charge of talking to the press. She advised me that if I was taking the westbound bus from Arkville, I should stand on the other side of the road from the bench and flag the bus down. It’s not really a stop, per se.

“There’s a big flowerpot on the ground,” she said, helpfully.

While the Trailways rep wasn’t inclined to elaborate on why they shut down the Margaretville stop, others in town were more than happy to. Kim Bohan, who works at the E&D Spirit Shop across the street from the Margaretville Motel, is glad to see the bus stop gone.

“It’s probably because we complained mightily,” she said. “You can still see the giant potholes from the bus pulling in and out of here.”

Having the bus stop in front of their store has been a nightmare for E&D for years, she said. Various “critters,” some of them rude and vulgar, hung around at all hours waiting for the bus. Cars on Route 28 couldn’t see around it. Once Bohan nearly got T-boned leaving the parking lot. But the icing on the cake, she said, was when somebody got off the bus and took off in a motel employee’s car.

“Apparently it had the keys in it. Some guy got in and drove off,” Bohan said.

Businesses that agree to host a bus stop can make a little extra money by selling tickets, but the consensus among Margaretville and Arkville business owners seems to be that it’s not worth the hassle. That’s not a surprise; the bus isn’t much of a moneymaker even for Trailways.

Although Trailways is a private company, the bus route that serves Margaretville is subsidized by a Department of Transportation program called Statewide Mass Transportation Operating Assistance, or STOA, funded by state taxes on petroleum companies. For every passenger they pick up, they get about $0.40, and for every mile the bus goes, another $0.69.

Without the subsidy, it’s likely the bus wouldn’t run on Route 28 at all. Even with the state cash, the Trailways schedule in the region has gotten considerably thinner since the 70s, according to a 2011 report on Delaware County public transportation that blamed “America’s infatuation with the automobile” for the abandonment of bus routes all across the state.

Few places on Earth are as unfriendly to the carless as rural Delaware County, whose public transportation options are pretty much limited to Trailways, a few social-services shuttles, and, last I checked, a sketchy-looking car in Delhi that has “TAXI” painted on the side of it. But a few hardy souls manage to eke out a living here without wheels. People like Anne Shea, who lives in the village of Margaretville, walks two blocks to work at the local dentist’s office, and takes the Trailways bus at least once a month for odd jobs and errands.

Shea fears that pretty soon, she’ll be seeing less of her out-of-town family; it’s a tougher sell to get your grown son to visit you if he has to walk two miles from the bus stop.

Last week, Shea wrote to Trailways with “great consternation” to urge them to put Margaretville back on the map. Then she started making the rounds: calling Congressman John Faso’s local office, rallying the local business community, talking to Route 28 landowners who might be willing to host a bus stop. She’s even willing to sell bus tickets from her house on Main Street, she said, if that’s what she has to do to get the bus back.

“It’s raining while you’re waiting for the bus — here’s my porch, no problem,” she said.

Carol O’Beirne, who chairs the Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce, is also anxious to get the bus running to Margaretville again. She’s a bit frustrated by Trailways, which has not been very communicative about what the problem is.

“We aren’t exactly sure why they’re proposing this, and we don’t know how to respond to that because we don’t know why,” she said.

O’Beirne’s clear on one thing: Margaretville needs its bus back. For residents, she said, it’s a lifeline; for tourists, a pipeline.

“Public transportation has always been our biggest challenge and we cannot imagine if a local stop in this busy commercial hub of Margaretville would be canceled,” O’Beirne wrote in a recent email to a Trailways manager.

“Busy” might be pushing it, but Margaretville is important in the region. There’s a large grocery store, a hospital, the aforementioned dentist: amenities not to be found in Andes, or Fleischmanns, or even Phoenicia. There are a fair number of local jobs. If Margaretville can’t find a new place to put the Trailways bus, it’s not just going to be an inconvenience for tourists.

Bus logistics might be a larger regional problem. Woodstock officials are currently talking to Trailways about moving the local stop from its current location, in front of Jean Turmo and the Village Green, to somewhere less bottlenecky. I can see why. On busy summer afternoons, driving through Woodstock around bus time is something like trying to get docking clearance on the Death Star for your two-bit TIE fighter with two huge Imperial warships jockeying for space in the hangar.

One thing seems certain: Uber can’t get here fast enough.

Lissa Harris is the former editor of the Watershed Post. She lives in Margaretville with her wife and daughter. Send her Catskills news tips at lissa.e.harris@gmail.com.