The Bangor City Council has approved spending nearly $100,000 on a study of the city’s bus system that will try to answer numerous questions, including how many riders would prefer that buses operate later in the night and how efficient the current system is.
As part of the study, a consulting firm plans to survey riders and collect data on the Community Connector transit system, which carries passengers across Bangor and into nearby communities, including Brewer, Hampden, Old Town, Orono and Veazie.
In the middle of 2019, the firm plans to make recommendations to the city about numerous aspects of the bus system, including staffing, fares, capital improvements, hours of operation and how it stops for riders.
Councilors agreed to award the $99,966 contract to the consulting firm Stantec at a meeting Wednesday night, after first discussing the matter during a finance committee meeting on Dec. 17. The firm expects to complete its recommendations by the end of May, according to Assistant City Manager Richard Cromwell.
Stantec’s bid was the second lowest of five that the city received. The lowest, $99,198, came from Community Transportation of America. One bid did not have an attached value, while the other two were both more than $100,000.
The study comes after some riders and local officials have pushed the city to extend the hours of the Community Connector’s buses in recent years.
However, in looking at that possibility, officials found that the existing fleet and other aspects of the Community Connector would need to be improved before the city could consider expanding its hours, City Manager Cathy Conlow said before the meeting on Wednesday night.
In recent years, the federal government has awarded the city funds to help replace some of its aging buses.
The study also is meant to provide direction to the city given several other recent changes, according to Conlow. In 2013, the state stopped providing oversight of the city’s public transit system, leaving local officials to assume those duties. Around then, some experienced managers of the system also retired.
The Community Connector now only operates from about 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., even though many area residents work in shops, restaurants, and other service sector jobs that don’t always fall during normal business hours, Sarah Nichols, chairwoman of the City Council and an advocate for more accessible public transit, said during an interview on Wednesday.
“This is exciting,” she said before the council voted on the study. “I was out at Pickering Square today talking to constituents. A lot of riders are concerned about extending hours. It’s nice that this will also be looking at that. They’re all excited about the transit study.”
As the City Council discussed the study, Councilor Dan Tremble was less committal to any specific changes in the Community Connector. He said that he wanted to see what the consultants from Stantec recommend for increasing ridership and cutting costs before getting behind any specific proposals.
Councilors also hope the study will consider whether the system should have more designated stops. Right now, there are a few stops scattered around the Bangor area, but riders are generally expected to flag down buses when they see them.
While annual ridership on the Community Connector has more than doubled over the last decade, that number has ticked down in recent years, from about 936,500 in 2013 to 800,490 now.
The Community Connector has a $3.3 million budget this year, according to city records.
Some members of the City Council also emphasized that other communities should be consulted about any proposed changes, particularly given that the Community Connector has been controversial in at least one member town.
In recent years, Hampden officials have voted to eliminate Saturday bus runs and proposed withdrawing from the service entirely. Some town councilors there thought that too few residents used the service to justify the expense.
Cromwell said he plans to discuss the Community Connector with his counterparts in other towns soon.