PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Although most teenagers can’t wait for the day they get their licenses, driving isn’t as fun when you get older and have to pay for gas and vehicle maintenance, drive on icy roads and navigate through snowstorms to get to work.
On top of that, many adults are looking for ways to lessen their impact on the environment.
Officials said Thursday a unique partnership among four agencies that allows some Aroostook County drivers to leave the stress of commuting behind is having an impact in the region.
GO MAINE Commuter Connections, the Maine Department of Transportation, the Maine Turnpike Authority and the Aroostook Regional Transportation System have joined efforts to offer new transit services for commuters.
The program has served more than 100 of the region’s commuters with van pools, an express bus service and car pool matching services.
Dan Donovan, executive director of the Aroostook Regional Transportation System, said Thursday that people were skeptical when ARTS announced plans for a commuter bus.
“That changed when the rubber hit the road and our commuter bus and van pool services began operating,” he said.
The commuter services are operated by ARTS with funding from the DOT and the Maine Turnpike Authority as part of the GO MAINE commuter services program. Riders are charged a fee, which varies depending on the route.
The idea began when Donovan and Carey Kish, program manager for GO MAINE Commuter Connections, made several site visits to the Loring Commerce Center in 2008 and early 2009 to recruit potential commuters into GO MAINE’s statewide commuter database.
The database collects routes and times of commuters interested in car pooling, van pooling, transit and other commuting alternatives. From those data, GO MAINE is able to help match commuters with possible car pool partners, van pools and available transit services.
“When those site visits netted us about 300-400 commuters, we knew we had the numbers we needed to make this work in The County,” said Kish.
ARTS and GO MAINE then began to identify what kind of commuter services might work for the region.
The Aroostook Express, a used school bus bearing on its side the logo of a flaming russet potato doing a wheelie, began running in December 2008. It runs daily between Presque Isle and the Defense Finance and Accounting Service complex at the Loring Commerce Center in Limestone.
Last summer, the DOT purchased a 24-passenger bus for the route, and today the bus is running at capacity.
“We actually have a waiting list for the bus,” Donovan said Thursday. “This has worked out really well for us and for the people who are taking advantage of it.”
On the heels of the success of the commuter bus, GO MAINE launched a van pool program with four new seven-passenger vans. The four vans are operating at capacity, and interest is building on other routes. The four existing van pools operate between Ashland and the Loring Commerce Center, Fort Fairfield and Loring, and two vans from Van Buren to Loring.
Kish said employees at DFAS, which is under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Defense, have an extra incentive to commute to work because of the Defense Department’s Transportation Incentive Program, which provides financial assistance with employee commuting costs incurred through the use of mass transportation and van pools.
The program is intended to reduce federal employees’ contribution to traffic congestion and air pollution and to expand their commuting alternatives.
Kish said that GO MAINE also can work with private companies to establish tax-free transportation fringe benefits of up to $230 a month per employee for transit and van pool expenses. This can be done as a pretax employee-paid payroll deduction.
“I think that this program has worked in The County for several reasons,” Donovan said. “The price of gas has been a major factor, and people want to lessen their impact on the environment. The weather has also been a factor. Although it has not been a bad winter this year, a lot of people do not like to drive in a snowstorm or when the roads are icy. You know that the commuter van is going to show up even in inclement weather, and you don’t have to worry about shoveling your car out of a snowbank.”
Donovan said that as more commuters register on the GO MAINE Web site, ARTS and GO MAINE will look at adding services.
“We are watching the list,” he said Thursday. “If we have a lot of people signing up, we will consider expanding to other areas.”
For information about ARTS and GO MAINE Commuter Connections, visit www.gomaine.org or call 800-280-RIDE.