NICHOLASVILLE — For the first time in 15 years, the Lexington Transit Authority is testing to see whether Jessamine County commuters will forsake their cars for the bus.
On Jan. 13, Lextran extended its Route 23 farther south along Nicholasville Road into Jessamine County. The expanded route now makes stops twice each weekday morning and twice each weekday afternoon at Brannon Crossing shopping center and the Sam's Club off U.S. 27. Each one-way trip is $1; discounts are available for seniors, students and people with disabilities.
This is not Lextran's first foray outside Fayette County. It operated a commuter line from downtown Lexington to Nicholasville between October 1997 and February 1999. That "Nicholasville Express" ran on a $400,000 federal grant, plus some state and local dollars, as a pilot program aimed at reducing congestion and air pollution.
The express ended about 18 months sooner than anticipated because ridership was low and federal funding ran out. Attempts to attract more riders, including free rides during one month, weren't enough to get people out of their cars.
The latest extended route came at the request of the Jessamine County Chamber of Commerce, which saw expanded bus service as a quality-of-life issue for workers, said chamber CEO Amy Cloud.
"There are enough people that commute to Lexington from our community that we wanted to offer assistance in that again," Cloud said.
Furthermore, once Lextran put stops in the county, then Bluegrass Ultra-Transit Service or BUS, offered rides from those stops within Jessamine that Lextran couldn't. BUS, a Frankfort-based operation run by the Bluegrass Community Action Partnership, is a federally subsidized rural transit service. It is trying to expand its services within Jessamine County, said Roger Kirk, director of transportation for BUS.
"This is all a work in progress, and we're asking people to bear with us because BUS is trying to get a good feel on where they need to take people," Cloud said.
The latest extended service into Jessamine became a reality when Lextran secured a $14,000 federal grant through a program called Job Access Reverse Commute. Lextran and Jessamine County put up a local match of another $14,000. (Jessamine Fiscal Court and Nicholasville City Commission each put up $3,500 for the Jessamine share, while Lextran put up $7,000.)
Commuting is a way of life for many in Jessamine County, where 2010 U.S. Census data indicates that more than half the workforce drives to jobs outside the county. Among them is Peter Brackney, 30, a bankruptcy attorney who lives in Nicholasville and works in downtown Lexington. He has become a regular rider since the service began.
"I think public transportation really provides a great service for all walks in the community," Brackney said. "Personally, there are health benefits and there are economic benefits to using mass transit. As more and more people discover these benefits, I think ridership will increase."
So one Friday Brackney got up at 5:15 a.m., and about an hour later pulled his car into a park-and-ride lot in front of the Nicholasville Sam's Club. Aside from a reporter and the bus driver, he was the only person on the 18-seat shuttle until six passengers boarded at the Walmart at Man o' War Boulevard. Those six disembarked at University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital. When the bus pulled into the downtown transit center 12 minutes ahead of schedule, Brackney got off and walked five blocks to the law firm where he works.
He sees the bus as a way to ease congestion on Nicholasville Road, to prepare for the day ahead with a cup of coffee and a review of files, to check emails, and as a means to get a few steps of exercise. As a columnist for The Jessamine Journal and the brainchild behind the blog Kaintuckeean.com, which explores "all things Kentucky," Brackney sees a broader purpose beyond himself.
"Kentucky stands to lose a lot of its beauty if a lot of these road-widening projects are built," Brackney said. "And if we want to be preservationists of Kentucky's landscape and its history, it's key that we do what we can to soften the traffic, to try to make traffic flow better, and the way to do that is these multi-modal options."
Lextran spokeswoman Jill Barnett said the authority is prepared to do a one-year trial for the latest experiment.
However, "If six months were to pass and nothing were coming of it, I would imagine we would sit down with Jessamine County and try to determine if this is in both of our interests to continue," Barnett said. "It doesn't look good for Lextran to have one person on it coming from Nicholasville."
Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety