With the Bangor City Council just two weeks away from deciding whether to keep the regional public bus system’s terminal in Pickering Square, a divided crowd of more than 100 people turned out on Monday night for a public hearing about the proposal.
Of the nearly 25 people who made public comments, about half supported the proposal to keep the terminal where it is, as two studies of the city’s Community Connector transit system have both recommended. They argued that delaying the decision any longer could hold back the city from making other necessary improvements to the bus system, including building a heated transit hub to replace the temporary one that’s now being used in the square.
Nearly all of the other speakers said they would like to keep some sort of bus stop in downtown Bangor, but they argued that it should go somewhere other than Pickering Square so that the city can focus on making the square into a more of a public gathering space that’s free of the noise and safety issues associated with a bus hub. They also suggested that there is not enough room in Pickering Square for a bus hub to grow.
The hour-and-a-half long meeting culminated with councilors narrowly deciding — in a 5-4 vote — to try settling the matter in two weeks. At their Jan. 27 meeting, they will vote on whether to accept a proposal to keep the terminal in Pickering Square, but move it so that it’s next to Water Street.
Four councilors have already said they support that proposal: Chairwoman Clare Davitt and councilors Sarah Nichols, Gretchen Schaefer and Laura Supica. Those four, along with Councilor Angela Okafor, all endorsed voting on the matter this month.
The four who opposed holding the Jan. 27 vote were councilors Rick Fournier, Susan Hawes, Ben Sprague and Dan Tremble. Fournier and Hawes didn’t speak at the meeting. Tremble said he wants to keep the hub somewhere in downtown, but that he’s not ready to commit to Pickering Square, particularly as the city has time to make a decision because it would not be able to go forward with the project until 2021.
Sprague said that Pickering Square may end up being the only viable location for the hub, but that the city should spend a few more months gathering data and other information to ensure there are no other options. In the meantime, he said the city should immediately work to add a heated shelter to the temporary terminal that’s now on Pickering Square.
Part of the impetus for the current proposal is that the city was recently awarded $1.29 million in federal funds to help it replace the bus terminal, which used to be located at the old entrance of Pickering Square parking garage. The city demolished that terminal early in the summer to make way for a renovation of the parking garage that was meant to make that area safer for pedestrians.
But the city has spent years discussing the system and potential new locations for the terminal. Two studies of the bus system — one in 2014 by Tom Crikelair Associates and another this past year by Stantec — both identified Pickering Square as the ideal location for it. Several supporters of the proposal to keep the terminal on the Water Street-side of Pickering Square pointed to those findings on Monday night.
The supporters included several riders of the bus system. Andrew Knightly said he rides the bus almost every day from his home in Bangor to his job in Orono — which requires a transfer at Pickering Square — and that he enjoys being able to stop in downtown to run errands or grab a beer.
Another rider who backs the proposal, Karen Marysdaughter, said that the current temporary shelter is not adequate — particularly without heat in winter — and that the city should move ahead immediately on replacing it. She also said that any new bus terminal would have a relatively minor impact on downtown.
“The bus hub design will take up a tiny fraction of the space that currently is devoted to cars in downtown bangor,” Marysdaughter said.
Another supporter, David Lister, said that he’s a driver for the Community Connector. He pointed to two other downtown locations that the city has previously eyed as potential alternatives to Pickering Square — along Washington Street and opposite the Bangor Public Library on Harlow Street — and said that they are logistically “terrible choices” for the bus terminal.
Opponents of the proposal to keep the terminal in Pickering Square were also out in force on Monday night. While many of them said that Bangor needs public transportation in downtown, they suggested the council look to base the system somewhere with room to grow.
Niles Parker, the executive director of the Maine Discovery Museum, which has an entrance along Pickering Square, said that he would like the city to make the square friendlier to pedestrians and also sees a need for public transit in downtown Bangor, but not as currently proposed.
“I’m really excited about making that a pedestrian friendly space, but I think when you start to introduce a bus into the space, problems happen,” he said. “That space is really too small for a bus hub.”
Bev Uhlenhake, a former mayor of Brewer and a broker at Epstein Commercial Real Estate who helped arrange the recent purchase and lease of One Merchants Plaza, a building next to Pickering Square, did not specifically state a position on the proposal.
But as someone who grew up in a family of bus drivers, who understands economic development and who supported the Community Connector during her time on the Brewer City Council, Uhlenhake cast strong doubt on whether Pickering Square is the right location in the long-run.
“What I know from research is that pedestrian friendly locations are not also bus hubs,” Uhlenhake said. “I know it will cost a lot of money to study other locations. I know it will cost money to move it somewhere else… [But you] need to pay attention to the best solution; not necessarily the easiest and least expensive solution for today.”