A local coalition has proposed a new bill to expand commuter bus service from Portland south to Wells and north to Augusta, but the Maine Turnpike Authority says adding commuter bus lines would be a waste of money.
The bill, called LD 673, "An Act to Expand Fiscally Responsible Transportation Through Increased ZOOM Bus Service," would extend daily bus rides into downtown Biddeford, Saco, Kennebunk and Wells, and up to Lewiston and Augusta, with stops at park-and-ride lots along the way.
The Maine Alliance for Sustainable Transportation helped draft the bill, which was scheduled for a public hearing in Augusta before the Transportation Committee today at 1 p.m. Christian MilNeil, a member of the Maine Alliance for Sustainable Transportation coalition, says the bill asks that the MTA set up and fund this service, estimating it will cost roughly $3 million a year to cover capital costs and operating expenses.
Initially, about $3.85 million would be needed for at least four new buses, which cost $300,000 apiece, as well as for expanding the routes, according to Jane West, a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation in Maine and a member of the MAST coalition. MilNeil suggests capital costs could be financed with a multi-year bond.
"We think a little too much money is being spent on building toll booths and widening roads," West says. MAST claims that the $3 million annual budget they're proposing is nominal compared to the spending outlined in the MTA's 10-year plan. MilNeil and West point to proposals to spend more than $110 million to widen stretches of highway, mostly in Portland, and more than $80 million on new tollbooths.
But MTA spokesman Scott Tompkins says the turnpike authority has backed away from a widening project of that scale, and based on current flat traffic figures is only budgeting a 2-mile, $16 million expansion in Portland in 2018.
As for expanding the ZOOM bus service, he says, "We're against it." He explains that current ridership levels don't justify an investment into new commuter bus lines, and that the MTA could end up subsidizing individual riders by at least $36,000 per year going forward.
The ZOOM bus service started in 1999 and has grown from about 16,000 annual riders to 46,000 in 2009 (the most recent data available) on its 10 daily routes between Portland and Biddeford/Saco, according to West.
The numbers don't convince the MTA that the service should be increased. The most heavily traveled corridor on the turnpike is between Portland and Biddeford, with 65,000 vehicles a day, and roughly 22,300 commuters, according to Tompkins. Of these numbers, only about 180 daily riders take advantage of ZOOM, he says. "Now looking toward Augusta and Lewiston, you have fewer commuters in that corridor. Again it doesn't make financial sense to invest in this," he says.
However, the coalition argues that by increasing the convenience of the bus routes -- for instance by adding routes to Biddeford and Saco that deposit commuters downtown rather than at the park-and-ride -- ZOOM will recover 30% to 50% of its costs through increased ridership and fares. Meanwhile, the coalition says the service will be saving commuters gas fare and vehicle maintenance costs, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, lowering traffic volume on the turnpike and giving people greater employment mobility.
MilNeil says roughly one-quarter of the bus's current $350,000 operating budget comes from ridership fees. The other two-thirds are split between the MTA and the Federal Transit Authority, with the remainder coming from local government subsidies and advertising revenues.
Not only would the bill have buses going to downtown Biddeford and Saco, but it also proposes to increase its daily round trips to Biddeford and Saco to 30 and add stops in Wells and Kennebunk. It would also add four daily round trips between Portland and Augusta, stopping at commuter parking lots in Gray, Auburn, Lewiston and Sabbatus, and add 16 daily round trips between Lewiston and Portland. Finally, it proposes to provide wi-fi in its buses.
So far, MAST has not done a broad survey of businesses, but West says they've heard from some employees who would like a commuter service.
"We've heard from a lot of employees of businesses, from Maine Med, Bates College, some nursing facilities in the Lewiston/Auburn area," West says. "A lot of students and professors at Bates have vocalized the need for more mass transit."