As the Bangor City Council prepares to vote in just a few days on whether to keep the region’s public bus hub in Pickering Square, the proposal appears to have enough votes for passage by the nine-member panel: four councilors have said they will definitely vote for it, and a fifth has said that she probably will.
But when another councilor made an 11th-hour proposal earlier this week to move the hub to a new location on Exchange Street, it provoked a fresh round of debate about a nearly decade-old question that some residents are eager to settle.
On Tuesday, Councilor Ben Sprague said in a memo to city staff and fellow councilors that the location — along a section of Exchange Street just across from the Penobscot County Judicial Center and next to TD Bank — would allow the city to keep the bus hub downtown while also freeing up Pickering Square to serve as more of a public gathering space.
The next day, Sprague shared the proposal on his public Facebook page in a post that received more than 145 comments.
On Thursday morning, Sprague backed off the proposal somewhat. He did so after city staff found that it would be hard to accommodate the buses on Exchange Street itself and that moving the hub into the nearby parking lot opposite the courthouse would probably force the city to close that parking lot. The lot has about 100 paid parking spots that generate $73,000 in annual revenue, according to Community and Economic Development Officer Tyler Collins.
“I’m not married to this idea at this point, but I wanted to at least have some discussion about it,” Sprague said Thursday. “I still like the idea. I think the disadvantages are not insurmountable, but I don’t have a solution about what to do on parking. That’s a question that would take some serious consideration.”
The city has ordered two studies of its public transit system over the past six years that have both recommended keeping the hub in Pickering Square. One of the studies, done in 2014 by Tom Crikelair Associates of Bar Harbor, considered various locations for the bus hub, including the parking lot across from the courthouse. The study found that lot would be a poor location for the hub because it would eliminate the parking spaces, add time to three of the city’s bus routes and create challenges for buses leaving and entering the hub.
Some other councilors expressed concern about the merits of Sprague’s proposal and argued that he was undermining the expertise of city staff and consultants who have worked hard to consider all options as they came up with the Pickering Square proposal going before the council Monday night.
Councilor Laura Supica also took issue with the fact that Sprague raised the proposal outside the setting of a City Council meeting and planned to discuss it on Friday morning at a meeting of the Downtown Bangor Partnership, a nonprofit group that’s coordinated by a city employee.
“He can share whatever he wants on his Facebook. That’s his prerogative,” Supica said. But she said she was “flabbergasted” that Sprague would raise the concept with another city body before councilors had a chance to vet it in open session.
Sprague said that a city employee invited him to speak at the Downtown Bangor Partnership meeting and that he was not “trying to elbow my way” into the meeting. He would have raised the Exchange Street proposal earlier than this week, he said, but he only learned of the possible location while speaking with constituents over the last two weeks.
“I’m sorry if councillors and staff felt like this was 11th-hour,” Sprague said. “I meant no disrespect. I didn’t think of the idea before.” He also acknowledged that there seems to be “a majority of councilors ready to move forward” with keeping the bus hub in Pickering Square and that it “maybe does not make sense to waste time, including staff time,” to keep vetting the Exchange Street location.
The four councilors who have said they plan to vote to keep the bus hub in Pickering Square are Supica, Sarah Nichols, Gretchen Schaefer and Council Chairperson Clare Davitt. Councilor Angela Okafor said that she is planning to vote for the measure right now, but remains open to hearing alternatives.
“It’s been a long time,” Davitt said. “Multiple studies have said that’s the best place to keep it. I’m impressed with the work our staff has done, beyond due diligence. While I know there are people opposed to it, I know there are things we can do to take care of those concerns.”