ROCKLAND, Maine — There remain significant hurdles to the creation of a public transportation system in Knox County despite the need for the service.
The lack of services is a hardship for some and an inconvenience for many.
But an insufficient concentration of population and the lack of parties willing to contribute to making the cost affordable for riders are the greatest challenges to a unified public transportation system in the Rockland area, said Lee Karker, who stepped down last week as executive director of the social service agency MCH.
Karker served on the Midcoast Maine Transit Study Committee, which met regularly for two years to develop a public transportation system. That committee commissioned a study concluded in March 2014 that there was a demand and need.
Karker said he believes transportation services have declined even further in the past few years. The decline began when the state separated the funding for general transportation and for MaineCare patients who needed rides, he said. That put a financial squeeze on Coastal Trans, which MCH had overseen. Coastal Trans closed earlier this year after 33 years.
Waldo Community Action Partners of Belfast took over the services provided by Coastal Trans, but Karker said that residents of the housing complexes overseen by MCH report increasing difficulties in getting rides.
Brent Stapley, director of transportation and housing for the Waldo Community Action Partners, said when the organization took over the transportation services for Knox County in April it inherited nothing because the ridership had dropped so much.
He acknowledged that it has been a challenge in trying to coordinate routes and getting volunteers. He said a program that had been in place in Knox County to provide vouchers for taxi rides for seniors and disabled residents has yet to be restarted but the agency is working on that.
Traci Coolbroth is one of the people who miss the voucher program. Coolbroth, who suffers from several significant medical problems, said that the cost of taxi rides to medical appointments and shopping is a hardship since her only source of income is Social Security disability.
Tim Sullivan of Portland was one of the people who helped create the local transit study committee when he lived in Rockland. He maintains that some sort of system should be developed.
“Living in Rockland is horrible in terms of getting around for the working class and those people with no jobs if they don’t have a car,” Sullivan said.
While in Rockland, Sullivan created the Midcoast Maine Ride Board on Facebook where people can connect with others for rides. That board has 457 members.
On the St. George peninsula there is a ride-share program Neighbor to Neighbor, which performs the same service.
Dianne Oelberger said the volunteer program has provided 480 rides in the past three years.
These unofficial networks cobble together a piecemeal system in the absence of a formal public transportation system.
The transit study concluded that Rockland, in particular, has a high concentration of older adults, persons with disabilities, persons with low income, and households without vehicles who need a public transportation system.
The transit study called for running a bus on an hourly basis on weekdays from Wal-Mart in Thomaston to Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport with multiple stops in between.
But without government subsidies, the fees would have been too great to make it work, Karker said.
Christopher Merritt, owner of Schooner Bay Taxi, also served on the committee. While on the panel, he expressed reservation that a regular bus service would be successful.
He said last week, however, that as the population ages and more people no longer drive, there will be more of a need, which could then make it feasible.
Merritt said taxi service offers affordable transportation options. A ride from Rockland to Pen Bay Medical Center, for example, costs $6 one way. He said if someone is simply dropping off a sample to the Rockport hospital, the taxi will wait, and the round-trip will cost $9.
Sullivan said taxis are not an affordable option for low income residents who need it for their daily transportation needs.
Merritt said, however, it would not make sense to start up a local bus service that would not have enough riders and then it would fail, costing taxpayers money. He said Rockland already has high property taxes and would not be able to afford contributing money to subsidize the program.
Karker acknowledged that it was all he could do to get the local towns to contribute $1,500 for the transit study. He said finding the local match to support a local system was one of the hurdles.