A proposal to cut back Metro bus service to Falmouth has been set aside as the town continues its budget deliberations.

The Town Council considered cutting $20,000 from its commitment to the regional bus service to reduce its municipal budget for 2010-11. But amendments to the town manager’s proposed budget would maintain the service at its current level, which includes two lines serving Falmouth.

While bus service will remain for the time being, many say the discussion about keeping it in Falmouth is far from over. “What this does is postpone the debate about the future of the Metro until the fall,” said Town Councilor Bonny Rodden.

Unless ridership among Falmouth residents increases, the town may reduce bus service or end it.

This year, Falmouth faces a budget shortfall of about $300,000 because of a reduction in state revenue sharing. The council’s Finance Committee considered the $20,000 reduction, but Town Manager Nathan Poore said that proposal was reduced to $16,000, which would have eliminated Metro service to Falmouth on Saturdays.

In discussions with transportation advocates and the Greater Portland Transit District, which operates the bus service, officials decided to forgo cutbacks, Poore said.

The town will be able to fund part of its contribution to Metro through a reserve fund that was established when service started to Falmouth in 2004, Poore said.

Last year, Falmouth joined Portland and Westbrook as full members in Metro. The communities paid $2.7 million to subsidize the service, with Falmouth paying $122,000.

The town is served by the Route 6 bus, which goes through North Deering in Portland to West Falmouth, and the Route 7 bus, known as the Falmouth Flyer, which stops along Route 88 and Route 1.

According to Metro, the Falmouth Flyer had 5,581 riders in February and 5,565 in January.

Some residents say Falmouth is not getting a return on its investment. Town Council Vice Chairman Tony Payne said the town has no firm data on the number of residents who ride the bus.

“Do we have sufficient ridership ready and willing to use Metro that justifies the expense?” he said.

Payne said he thinks the service is used largely by Portland residents who ride to Falmouth for shopping or work. He said he knows there are residents who use the bus for environmental or economic reasons, but the town won’t be able to pay for so few people much longer.

“If the numbers don’t improve by the fall, we’ll have to make a tough decision,” he said.

For the town to leave Metro, it would have to notify the transit district before Jan. 1. If it chooses to leave, it will be one year before service ends in Falmouth.

There are supporters of continuing the service. Friends of the Flier and the town’s Mass Transit Committee are trying to find ways to boost ridership.

This month, the Mass Transit Committee released short Public Service Announcements on the benefits of riding. The videos are on the town’s Web site and Falmouth Community Television.

Rodden, Falmouth’s representative on the transit district’s board of directors, said the threat to the bus service brought out support from riders in town. She said she has seen more people waiting for the bus.

Rodden said the town has to keep in mind seniors who use the bus, including a number at OceanView at Falmouth.

Rodden said the town would be foolish to end bus service without considering Falmouth’s future needs caused by business and residential development.

“It’s a very valuable service to many people in Falmouth and I certainly hope it will continue,” she said.

 

Staff Writer Justin Ellis can be contacted at 791-6380 or at:

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