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October 29, 2018
Focus: Transportation & Infrastructure

Workforce issues spur new interest in public bus transportation in Maine

Fixed-route bus transportation by region

REGION 1 — Aroostook County, parts of Hancock, Penobscot counties:

Aroostook Regional Transportation System: Some daily, some less frequent, service in Caribou, St. John Valley, Houlton, Presque Isle.

REGION 2 — Hancock, Washington counties:

Downeast Transportation: Twice-weekly service between Bar Harbor, Ellsworth, Bangor; Monday-Friday commuter service between Bar Harbor and Bangor, Cherryfield, Franklin, Ellsworth; seasonal Island Explorer seven days a week between Trenton, Mount Desert Island, Acadia National Park.

West's Transportation: Milbridge for-profit company provides service in Washington county, eastern Hancock County, Coastal Connection intercity service between Calais and Bangor.

REGION 3 — Penobscot, Piscataquis counties:

Community Connector: Operated by city of Bangor, service in city as well as Brewer, Veazie, Orono, Old Town, and Hampden.

REGIONS 1–3:

CYR Bus Lines: Full-service for profit Old Town transportation company, has daily service to Caribou and Medway (western Penobscot County's Katahdin region).

REGION 4 — Kennebec and Somerset counties:

Kennebec Valley Community Action Corp.: Kennebec Explorer, service in Augusta, Hallowell, Farmingdale, Gardiner, Waterville, Fairfield; Somerset Explorer service in lower Somerset County.

REGION 5 — Midcoast

Bath CityBus: Operated by city of Bath, provides Monday-Friday service in the city.

Bath Trolley: June-October service through city.

Western Maine Transportation Services: Operates Brunswick Explorer in city of Brunswick.

REGION 6 — Greater Portland, Cumberland County:

Metro: Owned and operated by Greater Portland Transit District, service in Portland, Westbrook, Falmouth Crossing, Maine Mall area of South Portland seven days a week, including Breez express to Freeport and Husky LIne to Gorham.

South Portland Bus Service: Owned and operated by city of South Portland, service South Portland, the Maine Mall area and downtown Portland seven days a week.

Regional Transportation Program: Lakes Region Explorer two Bridgton-Portland runs Monday-Friday.

REGION 7 — L-A area, Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties:

Western Maine Transportation Services: Service throughout region, including:

Citylink: rovides daily service for Lewiston Auburn Transit Committee.

Lisbon Connection: Daily round-trips between Lisbon area and Lewiston-Auburn.

Mountain Explorer: Free shuttle service between Bethel Village and Sunday River Ski Resort.

Sugarloaf Explorer: Eight bus routes linking residential neighborhoods, condominiums, inns, and hotels in Carrabassett Valley with the Sugarloaf Base Lodge and Outdoor Center.

Sugarloaf Express: Leaves in morning from Farmington, afternoon from Sugarloaf during ski season.

Farmington-Rangeley service: Two runs once a month from Farmington to Rangeley.

REGION 8 — York County:

ShuttleBus ZOOM: Inter-city service between Biddeford and Portland, via Old Orchard Beach, Scarborough and the Maine Mall (South Portland), run by Biddeford-Saco-Old Orchard Beach Transit Committee and partially funded by the Maine Turnpike Authority and the state Department of Transportation.

York County Community Action Corp. service includes: Sanford Transit weekday bus service between Springvale and Sanford; Orange Line between Sanford and Wells; Seasonal Shoreline Explorer trolley along the coast.

Note: Fixed-route: runs on schedule, doesn't require reservation. Agencies are private, non-profit unless noted.

Source: Maine Department of Transportation; bus service websites

When Western Maine Transportation Services took over the Brunswick Express in 2016, at first it was just a way to keep the in-town route alive.

Coastal Trans, which operated the service, had reduced routes then ended it because of decreasing revenues.

Auburn-based WMTS was relatively close — its Lisbon Connection runs from Lewiston-Auburn to Lisbon, 12 miles from Brunswick — so the state Department of Transportation asked the agency to step in.

In less than a year, ridership increased 35%, reliability improved and new routes were added, the DOT said last year.

Taking over the service was also an eye-opener for WMTS, which serves Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties. "We started seeing the connections that could be made," says Sandy Buchanan, general manager.

The Lisbon Connection will extend to Brunswick and Topsham beginning early next year. Around the same time, depending on availability of buses, WMTS will also provide commuter runs from Lewiston-Auburn up Route 4 to Farmington.

"So now we have someone [in the Brunswick-Topsham area] saying, 'You mean I can get from here to Sugarloaf?'" Buchanan says. "There's not a lot of connectivity between the communities. That's one thing we're trying to change."

Connecting for the economy

Maine — largely rural, spread out and sparsely populated — has long had a complicated relationship with public transportation, which is seen by many as a heavily subsidized social service. But the state's workforce shortage, coupled with a different view of public transportation by both millennials and boomers, is changing that.

"Transportation is the backbone for the economy," says Kristina Egan, executive director of the Greater Portland Council of Governments. "And getting people where they need to go is vital."

Her organization is collaborating with the Western Maine Transportation System, other transit services, government, businesses and social service agencies on a Mobility Management Initiative to determine how they can connect. The effort is an offshoot of the state's Public Transit Advisory Council.

Maine is required by federal law to provide accessible medical transportation for seniors and those with disabilities. The state is divided into eight regions, each of which will have a service provider. In many areas, transit is door-to-door reservation service, funded by Medicare and often using volunteer drivers. Federal and state requirements and restrictions tied to subsidies have tightened over the past few years, making additional commuter service hard to work into the equation.

The state's variety of bus services rarely connect, making it difficult, for instance, for someone in Lewiston to get by bus to a job at Bath Iron Works or to Barclaycard in Wilton.

"We hear repeatedly from people and communities with whom we work that the lack of reliable transportation is a key barrier for people to participate in the labor force, especially people with low incomes," says Carla Dickstein, senior vice president, research and policy development in Brunswick-based CEI, which is a participant in the statewide mobility efforts.

'I can't get there'

"I think transportation is one of those things people take for granted," Buchanan says. "But then [businesses] get the message from people they want to employ: 'I'd like to work for you, but I can't get there.' They don't realize how, without available transportation, they can't meet their staffing needs."

The lack of the full picture extends beyond employers.

"You get in your car, you go out, you have a good meal," she says. But the meal depends on the waitress or the line cook showing up. "When people don't show up because they don't have transportation, it's a problem" that causes ripples that affect retail, housing and development.

"Developers are asking me, 'What's available for transit?' before they build in rural areas," she says.

Dickstein, of CEI, says, "In urban areas at least there's an existing transit system to build on. The problem is more daunting in rural Maine — for people seeking employment and for the growing older adult population that do not have access to cars or can't drive."

She adds, "It is important to get support from employers and other businesses who have a stake in getting employees or customers to their business."

WMTS commissioned a study last year that showed "there's a pretty sizeable pent-up demand" for area bus service, Craig Zurhost, community relations director, told Mainebiz in December.

Finding ways to get workers to jobs was a major goal of the study, and immediate results included the Sugarloaf Express, which provides two round-trip runs between Farmington and Carrabassett Valley to bring workers to the ski resort. A similar route from Stratton, north of Sugarloaf, was added this year. Also added was the Mountain Express, with runs to Sunday River in Newry with two routes, one from Lewiston-Auburn and the other from Rumford-Mexico.

WMTS provides commuter service three days a week, soon to be four, between Rumford-Mexico and the Oxford Hills area. It plans to add the Lewiston-Auburn to Farmington commuter route next year.

Shoppers, students, business people

In greater Portland, providing service "is more than a challenge, but it's less than a crisis," says Egan.

Recent increases in ridership, as well as an increase in funding tied to a rise in the area's population, have spurred new routes.

"I've never been to so many ribbon cuttings at the same time," she says. "We're adding and expanding all the time."

Lines added this year include the Husky Line, which has round-trips to Gorham, and the Lake Region Explorer, which makes two round trips a day, five days a week, to Bridgton.

New routes have come from rider preferences as urban living becomes more of a norm for both millennials and boomers.

She says that on the Metro BREEZ, which runs from Portland to Falmouth, Yarmouth and Freeport, she sees "shoppers, students, sitting next to people in suits with briefcases."

Portland-area residents have four bus options — the Metro, the Regional Transportation Program, the South Portland bus system and the Shuttlebus ZOOM out of Biddeford and Saco, which provides Turnpike express service.

"They're all separate entities," Egan says. "It's very hard as a customer to figure out how to travel within the region and within the state. There are quite a lot of resources online, but it's hard to piece it all together."

Buses have wifi, but more technology, like smartphone apps to pay fares, would help increase ridership. "Public transit needs to learn from the private sector," she says.

Creating a blueprint

The Mobility Management Initiative is in its early stages, and its focus is still wide.

Zoe Miller, a senior project manager at the council of governments, says the idea is to create a blueprint for what a statewide network would do, as well as ways to fund it.

While funding for rural transportation is always an issue — while fares cover 20% to 30% of urban service, in Maine they generally cover 3% of rural service — there are also concerns "money's being left on the table," Miller says.

The effort is looking at not only commuter fixed routes, but ways to efficiently provide transportation in areas where those routes aren't possible.

Discussion is a large part of the process as different regions of the state try to find ways to make buses work.

"That's exactly why a coordinating entity is needed," Miller says. "There's innovation in southern Maine, but they're also doing innovative things in northern Maine, and we need to be hearing those stories down here."

Advocacy, too, is part of the plan.

Egan adds, "We have the challenge of changing the image of public transportation" across the state.

In Auburn, Buchanan agrees. "A big part of it is education. If you want to get workers to the factories, you have to change the whole perception of transportation."

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