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Bangor-area bus riders shouldn’t have to flag down buses. Instead, there should be fixed bus stops along set routes. And the area’s Community Connector bus system should incorporate technology such as smartphone applications passengers can use to pay fares and check the location of buses in real time.
Those are among the preliminary recommendations from a consulting firm studying how Bangor can improve its public bus system. The consultants are also recommending that the Community Connector find ways to extend its hours, based on many riders’ concerns that they can’t use the system early in the morning, late in the day or at other odd times.
The consulting firm Stantec has been studying the regional bus system since early this year, after the Bangor City Council approved its $99,966 bid for the work in December, but it’s not expected to complete its recommendations until the middle of June, according to Rich Cromwell, Bangor’s assistant city manager.
On Tuesday, one of the consultants who is helping with the study, John Gobis, held two public forums at Bangor City Hall to present the preliminary recommendations and take questions and suggestions from the audience.
The Community Connector transit system carries passengers across Bangor and into nearby communities, including Brewer, Hampden, Old Town, Orono and Veazie. While the bus system has established stops at major locations, riders are generally expected to wave down buses when they see them.
The bus system study is “not a type of report that’s going to sit on a shelf,” Gobis said at an afternoon session. “A lot of things can be implemented quickly with measurable return on investments, particularly with technology.”
The bus system should add GPS and tracking software that will allow it to collect more accurate usage data and allow riders to keep track of the progress of their buses, Gobis said.
While the recommended changes would require additional funding, Gobis said that some of them would help the Community Connector reduce its costs in the long run and draw more riders.
The entire Community Connector system has a $3.3 million budget in the 2019 fiscal year, according to city records. While its annual ridership has more than doubled over the last decade, that number has ticked down in recent years, from more than 900,000 rides in 2013 to about 800,000 more recently.
The consultants have recommended that the operators of the Community Connector do more marketing of its services and work with area employers to develop benefit programs for using the system.
Gobis also said the system could consider offering on-demand rides to passengers who live along more remote routes, such as the one that goes to Hampden, where it may not be economically feasible to offer regular bus service.
The largest loss of overall ridership has happened along the Hampden route, dropping 25 percent since 2013, according to the consultants. The busiest parts of the system are in downtown Bangor and along the route to Old Town, which includes stops at the University of Maine.
To assess the system, the consultants have interviewed riders, distributed surveys and met with local groups. The Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce and the local group Transportation for All also collected input from residents. On Wednesday, the consultants were planning to meet with area social service agencies, Gobis said.
The general survey found that riders are most frustrated with wait times for buses, the difficulty of transferring between routes and the cleanliness and comfort of buses. They most appreciated the ability to get a seat and access route information, the behavior of drivers and the value of the service.
The survey also asked how respondents would get around if the Community Connector were not available. While most said they would walk, get a ride, take a taxi, ride a bike or use other transportation, 15 percent said they would not make the trip.
Now, the consultants will work on deciding where to establish fixed bus stops and drafting additional recommendations, Gobis said.
Gobis said the Community Connector hub in Pickering Square works effectively, but that “it could look better” and that he personally prefers systems that have multiple hubs. He also said the consultants are looking at whether the routes could be modified to add “crosstown” options that allow riders to avoid traveling downtown just so they can transfer to another route at Pickering Square.
Any of the consultants’ final recommendations would have to be approved by local officials before they could be implemented. Gobis also said the consultants are seeking “a lot of public input” as they decide where to recommend where the buses should stop.
Some of the 30 people who attended the public forum Tuesday afternoon asked the consultants to consider the needs of passengers with disabilities and raised specific concerns with existing Community Connector routes and hours.
One speaker, David Lister, said he is a driver for the Community Connector and that his colleagues would strongly support the system moving to a fixed-stop system.
“It will make the system better,” he said. “I’m glad to see it up there.”