AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Department of Transportation’s plan to end the state’s commuter van pool program and encourage its 250 riders to use private van pool services has a York County lawmaker wondering what went wrong with the program and what will become of a $233,000 surplus in rider fees that was earmarked for replacement vans.
Rep. Donald Pilon, D-Saco, will ask the Legislature’s investigative arm on Thursday to look into the state’s GoMaine Commuter Connections program, which is slated to end Sept. 1. Pilon will request the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability investigation at a meeting of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee.
“Things really don’t add up,” said Pilon, a Government Oversight Committee member. “Numbers don’t add up.”
The Department of Transportation last winter announced plans to phase out the van pool service by May 1 and encourage riders to contract with private providers to resume their van pools.
Transportation officials made the decision after determining that the GoMaine van pool program — which serves about 250 commuters on 27 routes statewide and has a waiting list of about 250 people — couldn’t afford to replace all the vans that needed replacing while expanding the program to meet demand, said Department of Transportation spokeswoman Nina Fisher.
“The GoMaine rates would have had to go up substantially to reflect that we have a very aging fleet, and we simply do not have the available resources to replace all the vehicles in the fleet that would be requiring replacement in the next few years,” Fisher said.
But that explanation hasn’t satisfied the van pool commuters who pay $63 to $200 monthly and have found the private van pool options available to them would, in some cases, cost about 75 percent more than they now pay.
At a legislative session this spring, the Department of Transportation provided data that showed the GoMaine van pool program had taken in $233,000 more in rider fees in recent years than it spent. Rider fees cover the vans’ fuel and maintenance costs as well as their replacement.
“Our fares were covering expenses, and DOT was making some money,” said Deborah Turcotte, who drives an 11-person van pool daily from Bangor to Augusta, where she works at the Maine State Housing Authority. “And the money was not used to buy replacement vehicles.”
“This money, in my opinion, has to be returned to these riders,” said Pilon, the Saco legislator who’s requesting the GoMaine investigation. “All these people that rode the vans and were having money taken out of their paychecks — I’d be upset if I were one of those riders.”
In addition to the $233,000 surplus in rider fees, the Department of Transportation had budgeted $240,000 for fiscal years 2012 and 2013 to purchase replacement GoMaine vans.
But even the rider fee surplus and the amount budgeted for van replacements fall well short of the $1 million needed in the coming years to replace all vans that will need to be taken off the road, Fisher said. Replacement vans run about $43,000 apiece, she said. The GoMaine program would have needed to replace at least five vans in the near future.
“We were still not getting anywhere near the need of just replacing the vehicles, much less expanding the program,” Fisher said.
Fisher said the $233,000 surplus in rider fees won’t be returned to riders. Instead, it will be used to rehab the vehicles in preparation for turning them over to regional transit agencies throughout Maine when the van pools end, Fisher said. Some of the money also could be used to continue other GoMaine services, including a free online program that connects commuters who want to carpool.
Fisher said the $240,000 allocated for van replacements in the Department of Transportation budget will be reallocated.
For their part, GoMaine van pool riders had asked the Department of Transportation to delay the van pool program’s end by a year so riders could work with program managers to find a way to sustain the program — which is funded by the Department of Transportation and the Maine Turnpike Authority and largely operated by the Greater Portland Council of Governments — and grow it.
“If you have a successful program that is known nationally as a well-run program, why cancel it?” she said. “If you have a restaurant, all the seats are filled and you have a line waiting to get in, you don’t close your doors. You find a way to keep the business going.”
Transportation officials didn’t take the riders up on their offer but they did delay the program’s end date by four months, from May 1 to Sept. 1, to give riders more time to make other commuting arrangements.
“We didn’t feel the financial reality would change within a year,” Fisher said.
As the program winds down in the coming weeks, Fisher said two of the 27 van pools have withdrawn from the program to pursue private arrangements. The riders of a Portland-to-Augusta van pool formed a limited liability corporation and purchased their own van. Another van pool, in Aroostook County, shifted to a private van pool service.
Responding to the possibility of an OPEGA investigation into the GoMaine program, Fisher said, “We’re happy to cooperate with the committee in any way possible.”