BANGOR, Maine — Community Connector’s bus transfer station should stay downtown in Pickering Square, but could benefit from a position shift, according to a consultant who examined the potential future of the hub.
Tom Crikelair of Bar Harbor-based Tom Crikelair Associates presented his findings to Bangor’s Government Operations Committee Monday evening. The city hired him to conduct the review last year. Since then, he has reviewed several potential locations. The final product is a report that is more than 100 pages long. Councilors only saw a preview Monday night, and the full document should be released in the coming weeks.
Crikelair’s recommendation: Stay put in Pickering Square, but shift the buses onto Water Street by constructing a new turnout and passenger “waiting island” parallel to the street. This would clear the bus transfer activity from pedestrian pathways connecting the parking garage and waterfront to West Market Square and downtown. That idea, however, met some resistance from Key Bank Plaza across the street, according to Crikelair.
Crikelair’s alternative recommendation was to stay put and keep the hub setup as is.
“The consultants were unable to locate an available, affordable and viable alternative to continued use of Pickering Square as a downtown Community Connector transit hub,” the report states
During a public meeting last summer, almost every community member who spoke supported keeping the bus hub in Pickering Square or, at the very least, downtown.
The plus side of shifting buses to Water Street, Crikelair said, “it opens up Pickering Square to a full redesign.”
Crikelair also explored building a new hub at the Airport Mall, but that likely would constrain truck traffic coming to and from Hannaford and would require shoppers to walk through the mall to get their groceries. Another option was building an intercity bus terminal at Maine Avenue and Godfrey Boulevard, bringing Greyhound and Concord Coach Lines in to share the space, but that alternative would likely carry a hefty price tag and might not be affordable even with a significant federal grant contribution, Crikelair found.
Other downtown locations were also considered, Crikelair said, but issues with acquiring properties and traffic congestion prevented those ideas from being feasible.
Councilors asked Crikelair to consider one more option: Trying to acquire the Key Bank drive thru next to the parking garage so a new transfer location could be built there, clearing Pickering Square of bus traffic, while still keeping the bus hub downtown. That will require more homework and discussion with Key Bank, Crikelair said.
Also during Monday’s meeting, Assistant City Manager Bob Farrar outlined Community Connector’s proposed fare increases, which could take effect July 1. Councilors, however, asked them to keep crunching numbers as budget season approaches.
Rates for a single cash fare would increase from $1.25 to $1.50; half-price cash fare (for children under 12 riding with an adult) from 60 cents to 75 cents; a five-ride strip of tickets from $5 to $7; and a monthly student pass from $20 to $25. A monthly pass would still cost $45.
The bus system faces significant fiscal challenges in the coming year. Because of recent changes to MaineCare, some Mainers lost the coverage that paid for their transportation. As a result, Community Connector is expected to lose about $150,000-$200,000 in revenue in the 2014 fiscal year.
In spite of those challenges, several councilors wanted Community Connector to continue to explore its options before the council gives the OK to hike rates.
Councilor Gibran Graham asked whether the bus service had considered going the opposite route to increase income: Lowering rates in order to increase and encourage ridership.
Ridership has increased in recent years, drawing more than 1 million passenger trips in 2012. The busiest route is the Capehart route, with 187,000 boardings, or nearly 20 percent of overall ridership. The bus to Old Town also is frequently full, while others lag behind.
Six routes account for nearly 80 percent of ridership.
Fare hikes always contribute to some loss in ridership, according to Don Cooper, transit planner at Bangor Area Comprehensive Transportation System.
The bus service isn’t a money maker, and it operates in large part thanks to significant subsidies. Bangor’s budgeted subsidy toward the service is $419,000 for fiscal year 2014. The rate hike proposal will come back to councilors at a meeting in the next two to four weeks.
Councilor Nelson Durgin asked whether Community Connector would need to cut or reduce routes in order to avoid further financial shortfalls. That’s something the bus service will have to revisit as a clearer budget picture develops, Farrar said.
When Community Connector tried to cut the Odlin Road route, which had the lowest ridership in the system, during last year’s budget process after the city directed it to slash its expenses, officials met pushback and a community effort raised enough money to keep it going for a year.
“The system does not, unfortunately, pay for itself,” Farrar said. “What we’re trying to do is minimize that subsidy increase to the taxpayers.”