The slow lane to mass transit

Posted Sept. 19, 2008, at 8:56 p.m.

For several years, the concept of mass transit in Maine has caught on in small spurts — a response to pangs of environmental guilt perhaps — only to fizzle out. The United States is a car-driven society and Mainers, it seems, have enjoyed the flexibility of being able to drive whenever, wherever.

But slowly, and recently with more urgency, things are changing.

“Mass transit in general was stable if not decreasing up until a couple years ago,” Barbara Donovan, an alternative transportation coordinator for the Maine Department of Transportation, said recently. “So we did a lot of work on redesigning [bus] routes and marketing and started to see a steady increase. Once gas hit $4 a gallon, though, everything changed.”

For the fiscal year that ended on June 30, the BAT Community Connector bus system that serves Greater Bangor saw its biggest annual ridership increase in its 35-year history, according to Superintendent Joe McNeil. Similarly, Downeast Transportation Inc. in Hancock County has seen nearly twice as many riders this year than last, general manager Paul Murphy said.

Other means of alternative transit, such as car pooling and ride-sharing services, also have gained popularity, according to Donovan. GOMaine, an online network sponsored by MDOT and the Maine Turnpike Authority, has seen its numbers increase perhaps even more than bus ridership. So far this year, more than 7,000 car poolers are enrolled in GOMaine, and those numbers don’t include the many businesses that coordinate their own car-pooling programs.

Even passenger train ridership in Maine (albeit southern Maine) has seen an increase of about 25 percent within the last year.

Most agree on the undeniable benefits of mass transit: It’s considerably cheaper, it drastically reduces carbon emissions and it eases traffic congestion on public roads.

And yet, with all its perks, alternative transportation has yet to really catch on as a primary option for most Mainers. Whether it ever will depends on a number of different variables, according to experts.

Part of the problem is Maine’s geography: the state is big and its population is just too spread out. There are not enough people in a concentrated area to make mass transit truly economically viable.

The other deterrent is lack of convenience.

“For most people, our service needs to be as attractive or more attractive than their automobile,” Murphy said.

Maine’s mass transit infrastructure is improving, but because of these unavoidable drawbacks, public and private entities often are reluctant to make significant investments.

“We know there is a need,” McNeil said. “But who pays for it?”

What is available?

The BAT system started in 1972 serving solely Bangor, but it gradually has expanded to include the surrounding communities of Brewer, Hampden, Hermon, Veazie, Orono and Old Town.

Dating back 10 years, ridership of the BAT system has more than doubled, from about 400,000 in 1998 to more than 800,000 this past year.

Brittni Austin, 26, of Bangor, does not have a car or a license but said she uses the BAT most days to get to and from work.

“It comes right by my house,” she said recently. “Some days I ride and the bus will be full and the next day, there will be only a handful of people. It all depends.”

Dawn Hans and Andrew Fox, a young couple who moved to Bangor recently from Louisiana, have been riding the BAT bus until they can buy a car. Even then, though, they plan to share a vehicle and still rely on public transportation.

Currently, there are 10 active routes with 13 buses on the road at any given time in greater Bangor. They generally run from early morning to early evening on the weekdays and stop about every hour, although some of the more popular routes run every half-hour.

Each community contributes funding to support its own bus service. “That way, it becomes an investment of the community it serves,” McNeil explained.

While the BAT system is by far the most frequent bus service in eastern Maine, other options are available away from Bangor.

The Aroostook Regional Transportation System has five routes and a fleet of 16 buses that serve most of Maine’s expansive northern county, including daily routes to and from Bangor.

Local community action programs and other nonprofit agencies also offer limited bus services, mostly geared toward MaineCare patients,

Downeast Transportation, which last year conducted an extensive overhaul of its routes and services, offers transit in most Hancock County communities in one way or another. The most popular routes involve Mount Desert Island and what Murphy calls “anchors,” specifically Acadia National Park and the Jackson Laboratory, Hancock County’s largest employer.

Jackson Lab has been particularly successful in taking advantage of mass transit options, both through buses and car pooling, according to spokeswoman Joyce Peterson. Buses run daily from Cherryfield, Franklin, Bangor and Ellsworth to the nonprofit research center in Bar Harbor and all are full, Peterson said.

“We could support maybe twice as many if they were available,” she said.

Peterson predicted that about 180 employees ride the bus daily and another 70 car pool.

Car pooling has emerged as a good alternative for folks who don’t have bus service readily available or who want more flexibility, according to Donovan at MDOT.

“But we are moving toward a nonfactory workforce and it becomes harder to find someone with a similar schedule to carpool with,” she said.

That’s where GOMaine comes in, by allowing riders to make their own arrangements with other car poolers who have similar schedules and commuting routes. In addition, the MDOT oversees about 20 park-and-ride lots with 1,000 parking spaces throughout the state to help facilitate car pooling.

Eastern Maine Medical Center, one of the largest employers in the Bangor area, has about 100 people signed up through GOMaine, security manager Steve Russell said.

“[Car pooling] seems to work well for the unique schedules of our employees,” he said.

Limitations

Even with high gas prices and a growing sense of environmental responsibility, most in the mass transit world agree that eastern Maine will never be like Boston or other urban areas.

“Geography is a huge impediment. It makes it much more difficult to provide a robust service,” Murphy said. “In rural areas where people are spread over hundreds of miles, to get something that runs frequently is very expensive.”

Maine has 8,300 miles of roads and a population of 1.3 million. By comparison, nearby New Hampshire has roughly the same population but only 3,800 miles of roads.

“People will always come back from Europe and say ‘we need this or that,’” Donovan said. “But many countries have land-use regulations that keep population contained. Sprawl has contributed to the car culture in this country.”

While buses do well in the Greater Bangor area, many outlying towns and counties don’t have the same options. Some bus services, mostly small private companies, exist in rural counties, but not enough for people to rely on regularly.

Geography aside, McNeil said the biggest limitation of expanding BAT or any other form of mass transit is that no one wants to be responsible for funding it.

“Fares only cover a small percentage of costs but creating an infrastructure is a huge investment,” he said.

BAT is funded by a combination of federal and state money, but also by funds from the communities it serves.

Most transportation experts agree that any public transit improvements should include private financial assistance. The partnership between Downeast Transportation and Jackson Lab, which provides $50,000 annually to subsidize bus service, is a perfect example.

MDOT has about $12 million annually to devote to mass transportation, but Donovan said for real expansion to occur, towns, in particular, should pay a portion.

“It has been difficult for towns to invest in mass transportation, but towns that initially said they couldn’t support it soon realized they could,” she said.

In the absence of funding for expansion of buses, car pooling has taken off because it requires no real investment. But car pooling also requires commuters to rely on others, which limits flexibility to run errands or to respond to family emergencies.

Mostly, though, it’s a matter of changing a mind-set, and that’s not easy.

“It’s hard to get people to ditch their cars altogether, especially here,” McNeil said. “Also, there is still a social stigma associated with riding the bus.”

Austin, for one, doesn’t mind riding.

“I have plenty of friends who ride. It’s no big deal,” she said.

Capitalizing on the spark

Now more than ever, those in the mass transit business are looking for ways to take advantage of the mounting trend.

“In the post-World War II era, there has never been a more transit-aware time,” Murphy said. “My phone rings more now than it has in the last seven years.”

But while Downeast Transportation is always looking at ways to grow, Murphy said it’s not easy.

“Transit is faced with a two-edged sword at the moment,” he explained. “Demand has never been higher, but we’re still a fuel-oriented business and those costs are high.”

Murphy pointed out that Rhode Island and parts of Massachusetts have been forced to make cuts to their transit systems even as ridership increases.

“We want to grow, but we want to figure out how to pay for it,” he said.

McNeil recently presented plans in Bangor about expanding BAT service to Orono, particularly in the early morning and early evening hours.

Proposed is a small shuttle bus service that would run between downtown Orono and the UM campus at 20-minute intervals during UM’s busiest months, September through May.

Austin, who works at a retail store in the Bangor Mall area, said if she could change anything about the BAT system, it would be adding runs later in the evening.

“I have to rearrange my work schedule around the bus [schedule],” she said.

Marketing efforts such as “Free Fare Fridays,” and Commute Another Way Day, have developed as ways to raise awareness. Mass transit also has gotten support in Augusta recently in the form of a $30 million bond passed in June, two-thirds of which will finance a variety of alternative transit programs.

Donovan said MDOT already has doubled the number of vans devoted to the GOMaine program and is likely to keep adding vehicles. Car pooling has the advantage of requiring little infrastructure costs.

“The biggest thing is getting people to feel comfortable about riding or car pooling,” Donovan said. “You may not have to do it every day, but why not try it? People need to understand that they can use multiple modes of transportation.”

Recent statistics also showed that ridership for Amtrak’s Downeaster from Portland to Boston increased by 28 percent over the last fiscal year. Some have wondered why train service couldn’t be expanded from Portland to Augusta, or even Bangor. Once again, the answer is money. Someone has to pay for it.

Jonathan Rubin, an economist for the Margaret Chase Smith Center for Public Policy at the University of Maine, agreed that Maine’s rural character always will limit public transportation, but not entirely.

“Things that can work are: increased bus service, ride share programs and park-and-ride,” Rubin said recently. “But at the same time, people — when they make a choice to live in locations — they have to think about the transportation costs to and from jobs.”

Rubin said that could mean more Mainers moving closer to urban areas such as Bangor to take advantage of more options.

SEE COMMENTS →