BANGOR, Maine — Bangor’s budget meetings are typically routine, sparsely attended affairs, mostly drawing city councilors and staff who are paid or expected to be there.
That hasn’t been the case this budget season.
Dozens of area residents wearing bright “I Ride the Bus” stickers have descended on Bangor City Hall, crowding into council chambers to be heard during council committee discussions and watch as councilors comb through budget figures. Outside City Hall, they’ve organized barbecues and other community events, rallying people to their cause — longer hours for the city’s Community Connector bus service.
They likely won’t get their wish this year.
City and bus officials say the system just isn’t able to support that level of service in its current run-down, understaffed state. However, this year’s interest in Community Connector helped convince councilors to pump $528,000 in new funding into the bus system for fiscal year 2017, which could help turn the tide.
Swell of support
Transportation for All, a group under Food AND Medicine that lobbies for support for public transportation in and around Bangor, is responsible for the big turnouts at these meetings.
Currently, most Bangor buses stop running before 6 p.m.
“Without transportation, those who can’t afford a vehicle are left out of many opportunities our community offers — work, schooling, community groups, shopping — and that has a big impact on people’s quality of life and ability to work for a better future,” said Martin Chartrand of Transportation for All. “There’s a whole segment of our city being left out of aspects of our society that take place after 6 p.m.”
However, having sat through these meetings along with other supporters week after week, he recognizes why the city doesn’t see longer hours in the cards quite yet.
“We understand that it’s difficult for the city to practically extend the hours right now because Community Connector has been underfunded and underprioritized for years,” Chartrand said.
Wheels on the bus
Bangor’s bus fleet is 22 vehicles strong — sometimes.
Laurie Linscott, Community Connector superintendent, said during a recent interview that four of those buses don’t have engines. Several more are in serious need of engine repairs.
“I’m replacing bus engines in buses that should be retired,” she said. Each engine replacement costs between $18,000 and $28,000.
The Federal Transit Authority, the agency that funds and oversees public transit systems, sets “life expectancies” for public buses. Under FTA rules, municipalities shouldn’t replace a bus unless it’s past its life expectancy or surpassed a certain mileage threshold. Twelve-year buses, for example, must surpass 500,000 miles before they can be retired and replaced. If the bus is retired before one of those thresholds, the city must pay a penalty. For that reason, used public buses are hard to come by, because every municipality runs them into the ground, Linscott said.
Linscott has orders out for a pair of new buses, but those take 18-24 months to be delivered. Community Connector is looking for up to 10 new buses to phase in over the coming years, but it will be slow going with limited funding. Community Connector will have to rely heavily on extending the lives of what buses it has.
Two buses have been sent to Maine Military Authority in Limestone for midlife overhauls, which aim to make a bus like new at a quarter the cost of a new bus. Two more buses are scheduled for those overhauls in the coming year.
Of the 22 buses in its fleet, 17 of Community Connector’s vehicles are past their useful life, according to Linscott. Three of the oldest buses, built in 1996, have logged 765,000 miles, 758,000 miles and 616,000 miles. They should have been replaced eight years ago, Linscott said.
“Every day, I’m a breakdown from having to take service off the road,” she said.
Community Connector’s annual budget is about $3 million, and Bangor covers about two-thirds of those costs, according to Assistant City Manager Bob Farrar. Other communities including Brewer, Hampden, Veazie and Orono pump some funding of their own into Community Connector for the routes that stretch into their cities.
The $528,000 in additional funding proposed for next year goes toward a number of causes:
— A pair of new full-time positions in the administrative office — a dispatcher and a compliance officer.
— Those employees will need room to work, so the budget includes $120,000 to expand their cramped 12-by-36-foot Maine Avenue office space.
— New software to help drivers and the office better track ridership and routes, improving data collection and making it easier to report to the FTA. The data also could help find efficiencies in the routes.
— $250,000 to send a pair of buses out for midlife overhauls.
— $12,750 to pay for more regular bus cleaning, and $10,800 to open up the Pickering Square waiting and restroom area on Saturdays.
This funding will not be approved officially until the City Council votes on a final fiscal year 2017 budget, but most councilors have expressed strong support for the boost to the system.
Community Connector has seen its ridership drop in recent years.
In fiscal year 2013, the buses offered 936,500 rides, which increased to a peak of 941,500 the next year. In fiscal year 2015, ridership dropped by more than 40,000, a roughly 4 percent drop. By the end of the current fiscal year, it’s expected to drop again, though only by about 2 percent this time.
Linscott attributed the drop to a mild winter, making it easier for people to walk and causing fewer car breakdowns. The lower price of fuel also affected ridership, she said.
She argued that the new funding would help her improve the bus service, and ultimately lead to longer hours that will allow more people to take the bus
“I think I can get there, and I know I can get there,” Linscott said. “It’s just trying to lay the groundwork first.”
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.