Partisan observers of the political process often fall back on a lazy characterization of policy initiatives. Typically, it is liberals who deride the sharp changes in direction conservatives want to make, dismissing it as ideology. The implication is that rather than evaluate policy decisions on a case-by-case basis, conservatives are following a lock-step short list of priorities. If a new issue arises, they weigh it against that short list, rather than approach it with an open mind and fresh thinking and the ability to see shades of gray.
On the surface, the LePage administration’s decision to phase out by May 1 the GoMaine Commuter Connections van-pool program and hope riders can find similar service with a private company doesn’t seem purely based in conservative ideology. After all, state government does face perennial shortfalls in revenue, and it ought to scale back its reach into activities that are not strictly essential.
But dig a little deeper, and another picture emerges.
The van-pool program works. There are waiting lists to get rides on most of the 28 vans. In ten years, the number of routes has doubled. Rather than hope a private, Michigan-based firm takes up the slack — and find it may not be committed to keeping the vans running — the LePage administration and its Department of Transportation should have explored other fixes. Private business support or foundation grants might have been sought to match the federal funds used in the program.
The move betrays an animus toward state workers that has been seen bubbling below the surface of many of the governor’s initiatives. About half of those using the GoMaine van pools are state workers commuting to the capital to work.
The facts should not be subject to debate. All public officials bear a responsibility to limit the amount of carbon spewed into the atmosphere. Fuel prices will continue to climb, with gasoline perhaps someday soon staying above $5 per gallon. It is far cheaper to fuel and operate one van with 12 passengers than fuel and operate 12 cars. Keeping those dollars in Maine, rather than leaving the state to fuel suppliers, helps the local economy.
The passengers don’t get a free ride; they pay a share of the cost. Some of those who use this and other public transportation programs would have to buy, maintain, fuel and insure their own vehicles, a sizable investment that could tilt them toward leaving a job. And if the private van pool company maintains the routes, the cost to passengers will be nearly double on at least some.
Traffic is reduced by clustering commuters in cars, vans, buses and trains. If the 28 vans are taken out of service, another 280 cars could be added to the traffic stream. With more traffic, road wear is increased. With more traffic comes more vehicle crashes.
Pausing to consider keeping the GoMaine van-pool program is not liberal ideology. Rather, such consideration would be a sensible, dispassionate analysis of how government might help business get qualified employees to their doors from our far-flung population and realize savings in a half dozen other categories.
Rather than drop the van pools for an uncertain fate, the state ought to be thinking about ways to expand public transportation. In the coming years, connecting Maine people to education and jobs will be a challenge that will fall to state government, whether it likes it or not.