Mark Twain once observed: “I was seldom able to see an opportunity until it had ceased to be one.”
Words to vote by next month for the good citizens of Falmouth: As the price of gasoline bumps up against the $4-per-gallon mark, the local ballot includes a proposal that, if passed, will throw the town’s public transportation system under the bus.
It’s one of those big-picture, little-picture things. A major public policy issue — How do we best get there from here? — caught on a spike mat of local politics.
Let’s start with the latter.
In June, longtime Falmouth malcontent Michael Doyle began circulating petitions calling for Falmouth to terminate its eight-year-old “Falmouth Flyer” route on the Greater Portland Metro Bus system.
That would be the same Michael Doyle who has devoted much of his life in recent years to calling anyone who disagrees with him — and many in his hometown do — any number of nasty names. His favorite these days is “moon bat.”
Doyle’s contention this time: Nobody takes the bus — except for him, when he uses the camera on his smartphone to ride around in circles and photograph all the empty seats. Hence his campaign slogan: “Yes on 1 to Stop the Empty Bus.”
“This is why we have $1.2 trillion of deficits pending,” Doyle fumed Thursday. “Because we have thousands and thousands of these bus things going on all over the United States and we’re borrowing money from China to do it!”
Enter Friends of the Falmouth Flyer, who insist that Doyle knows not of what he speaks — hardly the first time the man has been accused of communicating from, shall we say, somewhere other than his mouth.
“Public transportation is always vulnerable anywhere in the country — particularly to the kind of manipulation that Doyle has been behind,” noted Glen Brand, who lives on Johnson Road in Falmouth and uses the Falmouth Flyer three or four times a week to get to and from his job as Maine’s director of the Sierra Club in downtown Portland.
The numbers, contend Brand and other supporters of the bus service, tell the real story.
Since the route’s first year of operation, 2005, ridership has grown just under 45 percent, to 79,000 individual rides in 2011 — far outpacing the entire Metro system’s 5 percent growth during the same period.
And like every year so far, 2012 is on pace to raise the Falmouth Flyer’s bar even higher.
That kind of use, supporters argue, justifies the $117,000 that Falmouth now spends — three-tenths of 1 percent of the town’s budget — to be part of the Metro system. Even if, they concede, many folks in the upscale community choose not to ride it.
Counters Doyle: “I’m not against mass transportation. I’m against wasting money.”
Interesting way to put it. Recently, Friends of the Falmouth Flyer’s Brand emailed Town Manager Nathan Poore to ask for an estimate of Doyle’s own financial impact on the town – from his near-constant public-records requests, to the legal bills, to the police officer posted at all Town Council meetings since Doyle sent two female councilors threatening emails in 2010.
Poore responded with a “less than precise” punch list that, when tallied, puts the town’s cost of dealing with Doyle somewhere north of $150,000 over the past 18 months alone.
“It’s all theater,” responded Doyle when asked about those special police details. “Theater of the absurd.”
But we digress. Back to the bus — and, more importantly, who’s on it.
“I can’t tell you how important it is — especially to seniors,” said Arlene Clifford, 87, who lives near the bus stop at Oceanview at Falmouth, a retirement community about a mile from the town center that actually uses the bus route in its marketing pitch to prospective residents.
Clifford, a regular rider since Day One, takes the bus to go shopping at the Shaw’s supermarket on Route 1 and to get to her doctor’s office at the Martin’s Point Health Care Center just over the bridge in Portland.
“But what I enjoy most about it is when they have the brown bag lunches down (at the Portland Public Library),” she said. “I can take the bus down there and listen to the authors and see their books and then, in 15 or 20 minutes, I can catch a bus back to Falmouth again. And I really appreciate that.”
Mike Skillins of Skillins Greenhouse is one of 19 small-business owners in Falmouth who reported in a recent survey that they have employees — mostly from Portland — who rely on the bus every day to get to and from work.
“It’s their only way of getting here,” Skillins said. “It opens up a whole different avenue of employment opportunities for them and it gives us a whole different avenue of employment options. These are great people who we wouldn’t have access to, and we can’t just turn our back on them.”
Which, in all likelihood, Falmouth won’t.
While Doyle did manage to gather 872 signatures on a petition to force the referendum (some of the signers, claiming they were told the petition was to support the Falmouth Flyer, later tried unsuccessfully to have their names removed), the testimony at a public hearing last month overwhelmingly tilted toward keeping the bus rolling.
In fact, only Doyle called for the route to be abandoned.
“All I want to do is let the town voters have a chance to make a decision on this,” he said. “Win or lose, at least the population has a chance to weigh in.”
And what if they decide that the bus, whether they ride it or not, is a public service worth preserving? Maybe even a $1.50-per-trip escape from those ever-escalating gas prices?
“Then I won’t keep running around,” Doyle promised. “There’s one thing I don’t do, and that’s beat a dead animal.”
Of course he doesn’t.
He’s too busy hunting for moon bats.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: