EDITORIAL

A Cheap Bus Ride

Posted May 12, 2011, at 10:05 p.m.

How can two people travel from Boston to New York and back for $36.50? Thanks to a cheap bus with lots of customers. Unfortunately, similar service isn’t likely in Maine.

The cheap fare was on Megabus. It has been offering city-to-city express service in the New York region since 2006. Now it has expanded to nearly 50 major cities in the U.S. Northeast and Midwest and in Canada.

Prices start at $1 and vary upward depending on reservation date, day and time of travel, and demand for seats. Once a reservation is purchased, the fare won’t change. Added to the fare is a reservation fee of 50 cents on the Internet or $3 on the telephone. In the future fares may vary without notice, but so far they usually stay below $20 on the Boston-New York run.

The buses are modern, fully equipped with WiFi.

How can Megabus do it so cheaply? Partly it’s because it has no expensive terminals. Most pickups and destinations are at street corners, although the buses arrive and depart at Boston’s South Station.

Another explanation is numbers, which are plentiful in the region tapped by the Megabus routes but sparse in Maine. So expansion into even Portland, not to mention Lewiston or Bangor, looks out of the question. Any future Megabus service to Aroostook County is even less likely. The Old Town-based Cyr Bus Lines announced in March that it was discontinuing service beyond Caribou.

Still another reason for the disparity between Megabus rates and those of air and rail is the difference in public subsidies that support the different modes of transportation. Air travel charges the most, despite public costs of terminals. Rail rates are high, too, reflecting relatively stingy public subsidy. Megabus takes advantage, of course, of the large subsidy of cars and trucks in the form of public funding of the construction and maintenance of highways and bridges and traffic control, plus cheaper gasoline, even at $4 a gallon, than in most other developed countries.

More generous support of rail travel could permit lower rates and development of the high-speed trains already enjoyed in those other countries. In the meantime, a cheap ticket can get you from Boston to New York, but nowhere in Maine.

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