Bangor bus drivers call on Maine delegates to back federal public transit funding

Posted May 27, 2014, at 6:10 p.m.
Last modified May 27, 2014, at 9:18 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A newly formed union of bus drivers for Bangor’s Community Connector called on Maine delegates to support federal public transit funding or risk torpedoing jobs and hurting some of Maine’s poorest residents.

“Our drivers are committed to the people of Bangor,” said Sue Warner, a Community Connector driver and union steward, during a news conference Tuesday at the city’s Pickering Square transportation hub. Funding reductions and budget issues in recent years have concerned drivers about their own jobs and for the jobs and safety of their riders, she said.

The union has thrown its support behind Senate bill 2322, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, which funds transportation and infrastructure projects through the Highway Trust Fund. Transportation unions across the nation also have launched campaigns calling on lawmakers to back the bill. Supporters say the measure would create jobs and help maintain and develop the nation’s transportation infrastructure.

In the wake of the news conference, delegates expressed their support.

Sen. Angus King’s spokesman Scott Ogden said Tuesday afternoon that King “understands how important public transit options are for people across Maine” and that he was “seriously concerned” about funding shortfalls. Ogden said King is “actively working with his colleagues to explore funding and financing options for long-term transit upgrades and infrastructure improvements.”

“Reps. [Mike] Michaud and [Chellie] Pingree both strongly support funding public transport and feel it’s a critical part of the country’s infrastructure,” spokesman Dan Rafter said in an email Tuesday. “Funding the Highway Trust Fund is central not only to the safety of those traveling on the highways and bridges in Maine and across the nation but also critical to maintaining a thriving construction sector.”

Sen. Susan Collins also sees the value in transportation initiatives to improve roads, bridges and public transit, according to spokesman Jeremy Kirkpatrick.

“At this point, it is unclear how the reauthorization of MAP-21 would be financed,” he wrote in an email. “While Sen. Collins does not serve on the committees drafting the bill, she is the ranking member on the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee and will carefully review this legislation and its impact on Maine.”

Transportation unions across the country have launched a campaign in support of the funding bill, distributing fliers and phone numbers for their federal representatives.

Warner said about 80 percent of funding for the Community Connector bus system comes from the federal government. The service’s projected expenses for the next fiscal year is $2.9 million, but they anticipate revenues of just $2.4 million including federal funding, according to early drafts of the city’s proposed budget.

Warner said Community Connector serves a population of working poor, disabled and elderly residents who rely on the bus to get to work, the store or to doctors.

“If the bus goes away, those people will have to use cars or walk, and neither of those are good options,” Warner said.

The news conference was hosted by members of Amalgamated Transit Union 714, which includes more than 100 drivers in Portland and now about 34 drivers based in and around Bangor.

“We had no voice. We had no protection. Our concerns and issues weren’t being addressed” Warner said of the decision to organize.

Bangor and the new bus drivers’ union have each ratified the union’s first contract, which includes terms of a wage schedule, management rights, grievance procedures and other details common to union contracts. The agreement just needs signatures from both sides, according to Assistant City Manager Bob Farrar. The terms of that contract expire June 30, 2015, when it will be up for revision.

Community Connector could experience cuts resulting from a trying fiscal climate as city councilors try to pass a budget while minimizing a tax hike on residents. Last year, facing an earlier budget crunch, the city eliminated the Odlin Road route, which drew the lowest ridership of any route. That prompted an outcry and a community-led effort to raise money to keep it going for the year.

Warner said drivers fear more cuts as budget talks progress this summer.

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