As the Falmouth Town Council looks for ways to fill a $300,000 budget shortfall, some councilors are proposing to reduce the METRO bus service or possibly eliminate it altogether.

The service is used primarily by Portland residents to get to work or to shop in Falmouth, said Tony Payne, council vice-chairman. Because Falmouth is an affluent suburb that lacks the density of Portland, convincing many Falmouth residents to abandon their automobiles for a bus has been futile, Payne said.

”The question is: Do folks who reside in Falmouth look at METRO as a viable commuter option for them? By the nature of the community, it does not appear that way,” he said.

The Falmouth Finance Committee on March 18 will begin discussions on the budget, including a proposal from the town administration to cut $20,000 from the bus service.

Payne said there would be a $50,000 savings if the Route 7 bus, the Falmouth Flyer, was limited to just Route 1.

The bus service has strong advocates, however.

Residents of OceanView have been writing letters to councilors urging them to retain the service because they no longer drive and have no other way to go shopping or visit their doctors.

One elderly man wrote that it would be a danger to the public if he were forced to drive his car again.

Town Council Chairwoman Cathy Breen said it would be a mistake to allow short-term budget constraints to cause the town to abandon its long-range commitment to a regional transportation system.

She said she’s not concerned that the bus seems most popular among Portland residents.

”Some of the people who pooh-pooh the bus are big champions of economic development,” she said. ”It’s confusing to me. If we are bringing employees and shoppers into our town, that’s a good thing.”

There are two bus routes in Falmouth.

Route 6 goes through North Deering to a commercial district in West Falmouth just over the Portland line.

The Falmouth Flyer travels down Route 1 to Walmart and Shaw’s Supermarket. At different times of the day, it also travels on two other loops: one down Johnson Road and Route 88 and the other down Middle Road to the OceanView retirement community.

While a service reduction could take effect this year, Falmouth could not withdraw completely until early 2012 because of its contract with METRO.

Payne said he followed Falmouth Flyer buses in his car last May and again in July to determine who was riding it. The bus operates every hour, and he followed four buses during the morning commute.

In May, there were 37 riders in all, and only nine were from Falmouth, he said. In July, there were 38 riders, only six from Falmouth.

Route 6 is even worse, said Councilor Fred Chase, who supports Payne’s efforts.

”We get empty bus after empty bus over there,” he said. ”It’s embarrassing.”

A townwide survey completed this month shows that residents feel more strongly about preserving other town services, such as local public safety dispatch service, than they do about the bus.

Forty-three percent of the 810 people who took the survey said the bus was the least important service the town offers.

Falmouth has had bus service since 2004.

Last year, though, it joined Portland and Westbrook to become a member of Greater Portland Transit District METRO.

The three communities in 2009 spent $2.7 million subsidizing the service.

Falmouth’s portion was $122,000.

METRO is facing its own budget crunch. Its board of directors will vote Wednesday on a proposal to increase the full fare from $1.25 to $1.50.

The increase will help cover a projected $200,000 budget shortfall in 2010.

A proposal to increase the taxpayer subsidy by 2.5 percent has been withdrawn because the district is now planning to use some surplus funds from last year to avoid any increase.

Falmouth Town Councilor Bonny Rodden, who sits on the METRO board of directors, said the average monthly ridership on Route 7 has increased every year since bus service began in 2004.

Also, Route 7 was the only one of eight bus routes that did not experience a decrease over the past six years, according to a report given to the council last November.

From May 2009 to October 2009, there were 38,748 riders on Route 7, a 3 percent increase of the same period in 2008, the report said.

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at [email protected]