Ending van pool ‘poor public policy;’ legislators question funding

Posted July 19, 2012, at 5:41 p.m.
Last modified July 20, 2012, at 5:10 a.m.
 The GoMaine Commuter Connections service is scheduled to stop Sept. 1.
The GoMaine Commuter Connections service is scheduled to stop Sept. 1.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A legislative committee Thursday decided it wasn’t ready to order a full investigation into the Department of Transportation’s management of a commuter van pool program, but committee members still had questions about the funding situation surrounding the GoMaine Commuter Connections service that will end Sept. 1.

Members of the Government Oversight Committee asked the Legislature’s investigative arm to start looking into the program’s revenues and expenses before another discussion next month.

Democrats on the panel said the Department of Transportation’s decision to end the van pool service and encourage riders to find private alternatives represented bad public policy.

“Not only is it poor public policy at a time it most affects the economy,” said Sen. Nancy Sullivan, D-Biddeford, “it was never explained.”

Government Oversight Committee members Thursday were considering a lawmaker’s request for a probe into the GoMaine van pool program. Rep. Donald Pilon, D-Saco, said he wanted to find out what went wrong with it and what will become of a $233,000 surplus in rider fees that was earmarked for replacement vans.

“No one was accounting for the money that was coming in and the money that was going out,” Pilon said Thursday. “No one was looking at the books every year.”

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. The department extended the end date to Sept. 1 after GoMaine riders asked for a year extension and the opportunity to work with program managers to find a way to sustain and expand the program.

Nina Fisher, the department’s legislative and constituent services director, told committee members Thursday that the Department of Transportation could have better handled its February announcement about the decision to end the van pool service.

“It wasn’t our finest time to send out the letter and tell you, in the next two months, you have to find new arrangements,” Fisher said. “The deadline was too short. It was too quick of a turnaround. It wasn’t the right message we were trying to send.”

But that doesn’t change the reality, she said, that the program doesn’t have sufficient funds to replace aging vans that will need replacement in the near future and to expand the program to meet demand.

Fisher said Thursday that van pooling “is the way to go,” and that’s why the Department of Transportation sought out private van pool providers before announcing its plans to end the program.

“The question is, should it be subsidized by the state, and is it the responsibility of the Maine DOT to provide these rides?” she said.

While riders pay monthly fees for the van pool service, the Department of Transportation covers about 60 percent of administration costs, mostly from from a pool of federal funds aimed at reducing traffic congestion. The Maine Turnpike Authority pays the balance, and the Greater Portland Council of Governments manages most of the program’s day-to-day operations.

The GoMaine van pool program serves about 250 commuters on 27 routes across the state and has a waiting list of about 250 people.

The Department of Transportation’s explanations about ending the program have not sat well with van pool riders, who started pressing for more information about the program’s management after the February announcement.

Deborah Turcotte, who’s part of a van pool that commutes daily from Bangor to Augusta, said the Department of Transportation’s numbers explaining the program finances and ridership have continued to change in recent months.

“The answers keep changing and we’re not getting straight answers, and we think we should,” she said.

In April, riders found out that the Department of Transportation had accrued a $233,000 surplus of their monthly rider fees — which range from $63 to $200 a month depending on the length of the commute — and had planned to use the money to replace vans.

Instead, the department will use the money to rehab the current fleet of vans in preparation for turning them over to regional transit agencies across the state when the program ends. It will reallocate a separate fund of $240,000 that had been earmarked for GoMaine van replacements.

Pilon said the $233,000 in rider fees should be returned to the riders. “That’s one of the issues here that needs to be cleared up,” he said.

The research by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, or OPEGA, could result in some answers.

“That doesn’t mean that the program is staying, and that’s a bad thing,” Turcotte said. “We need legislators to step up and ask the Transportation Committee to say, ‘Let’s get together. Let’s figure this all out.’”

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