BANGOR — On any given day, city bus riders are dropped off at the end of Hammond Street where it intersects with Maine Avenue.
It’s the end of the line for that route, but it’s not the final destination for most. Many continue walking down Odlin Road to outer Hammond Street toward the many businesses and services in that area of the city.
City Councilor Pat Blanchette sees them often when she’s having coffee at a shop on Odlin Road.
“These people need to find a way to get back and forth to work without taking their life in their hands by walking,” she said. “Not everyone can afford a car or mandatory car insurance right now.”
Councilor Cary Weston passes many on the way to a local radio station, where he is often a guest on the morning show.
“We either make a commitment to be a public transit provider or we don’t. This has been asked for for 10 years; I think it’s time,” he said.
On Tuesday, councilors directed BAT Community Connector Superintendent Joe McNeil to come up with some scenarios for adding a new route.
“There is definitely a demonstrated need,” McNeil said Wednesday. “We’re dropping off several passengers there every day. The council is supportive of the concept, but the question is: How are we going to pay for it?”
The city recently received some federal funds to buy a new bus and increase the fleet. If the BAT shuffles its schedule a bit, it could conceivably add a route with that new bus.
McNeil said it’s not that simple.
“We’ve tapped out our federal resources, so the operating cost will be high,” he said. “Fares reduce operating deficit, but they don’t eliminate it.”
Earlier this year as part of the city’s budget discussion, councilors approved a fare increase from $1 to $1.25 to further offset growing operating losses. As part of that same discussion, the city also considered discontinuing bus service on holidays and some weekend days in an effort to save money, but the council ultimately decided against that idea.
“The fare increase hasn’t been a big deal. Riders don’t like it, but they are definitely not in favor of service going down,” McNeil said.
Adding a new route could cost as much as $150,000 if it ran for a typical 14-hour day. Weston said he understands the financial considerations of adding service, but said the city’s responsibility to its work force is greater.
“Fiscal responsibility doesn’t mean you don’t spend money, it means being responsible with the money you spend,” he said.
In addition to many businesses in that area, including five hotels and two industrial parks, it’s also home to Discovery House, Bangor’s largest methadone clinic. The clinic recently got approval from the City Council to expand from 500 patients to 700, a sign that more and more people are seeking treatment.
The BAT is a fixed-route public transit system operated by the city of Bangor for some of the communities of Greater Bangor, including Bangor, Brewer, Veazie, Orono, Old Town, Hampden and the University of Maine. There are nine separate bus routes that run every hour or every half-hour Monday through Friday during normal business hours. Some routes offer Saturday service.
McNeil said BAT ridership has increased steadily in the last several years. The number of annual riders eclipsed 800,000 in 2008 for the first time in the system’s three-decade history and has kept growing into this year.
The last route added by the BAT was the “Mallhopper” in 2007. It has become one of the most popular routes.
“We have gone in and altered routes because, frankly, people’s patterns change,” Blanchette said. “As the city grows, bus service is certainly something we’ll need to address.”
Councilors are expected to revisit the new service proposal sometime after the New Year.