YARMOUTH — Tony Donovan was flying in a single-engine plane over Yarmouth recently when he noticed what appeared to be a new lake on the landscape.

What he thought was water was actually the shimmering, fresh asphalt of a 300-space parking lot that was built next to Interstate 295 this summer for nearly $1 million. “I didn’t know it was a park-and-ride lot until I was right on top of it,” Donovan said.

The lot, which has been open to the public for nearly three weeks, hasn’t attracted many customers so far. On average, six cars were parked there each morning last week, according to a daily count taken between 9 and 10 a.m. by the Portland Press Herald. That left 294 empty spaces.

That angers people like Donovan, who was a critic of the lot even before it was built because he thought it would be too big.

Some environmentalists are upset that the state cleared three acres of trees to build the lot. And some critics see their tax dollars being squandered.

“It seems like misspent money at a time when money is so scarce,” said Joan Saxe of Freeport, who serves on the executive committee of the Maine chapter of the Sierra Club.

Officials in the Maine Department of Transportation, which built the lot as part of a $6 million redesign of Exit 15, say the lot will fill up once people learn about it.

“It is like any new mode of transportation that becomes available. It will take time,” said MDOT spokesman Ted Talbot. “In this case, our studies have shown, if you build it, they will come.”

It will take time because it’s hard to change people’s behavior and get them to consider car-pooling, said Penny Vaillancourt, who manages the department ‘s park-and-ride program.

GOAL TO CUT POLLUTION, TRAFFIC

There are 52 park-and-ride lots statewide, and the one in Yarmouth is by far the biggest. It has more than twice the number of parking spaces as the next-largest lot, at Exit 36 of the Maine Turnpike in Saco, which has capacity for 135 cars.

The state provided 20 percent of the funding for the lot in Yarmouth; the rest came from the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program, which funds projects that improve air quality.

Vaillancourt said the lot is the product of several studies that examined ways to increase opportunities for public transit, van-pooling and car-pooling. “This has been a long-term goal for the region,” she said.

A state study in 2007 showed that, on average, 39 vehicles were parked in the park-and-ride lot at Exit 17 on I-295, which had an official capacity of only 30. That lot, two miles north of Exit 15, is next to the state’s Visitor Information Center in Yarmouth.

In 2010, a study concluded that moving commuters out of single-occupancy vehicles would reduce air pollution and traffic congestion, and help prevent the need to widen I-295.

A 2011 study of alternative modes of transportation north of Portland identified Exit 15 as a possible location for a parking lot for a commuter train station. The St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad is next to the lot.

Ultimately, the Department of Transportation concluded that there wouldn’t be enough demand to make commuter train service feasible and it did not support the project.

The “whole intent” of the park-and ride lot is to serve other modes of transportation, including buses and passenger trains, said the project manager, Ernie Martin of MDOT.

DISAGREEMENT ON LOCATION CHOICE

Tony Donovan, who heads the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, said it doesn’t make sense for the state to build a parking lot for services that don’t exist or, in the case of passenger rail, a service the state has already rejected.

Even if passenger rail service got going, the best place for a train station would be downtown Yarmouth, where it could be reached by pedestrians and spur economic development, said Donovan and Yarmouth Town Planner Vanessa Farr.

The town and the regional planning agency, the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, had no role in the park-and-ride’s design.

Vaillancourt, manager of the park-and-ride program, said it will take time for companies and individuals to start using the lot as a meeting place. The lot is also designed to accommodate bus turnarounds.

Although there’s no bus service between Portland and Brunswick, several towns in the area have been talking about applying for federal funds to start service along Route 1 between Portland and Freeport, and possibly Brunswick.

If a bus service gets going, a stop at the Exit 15 lot will make a lot of sense, said Greg Jordan, general manager for Metro, which runs the bus service for Portland, Westbrook and Falmouth.

“I think it has tremendous value, going forward,” he said of the lot. “You want to locate a park-and-ride lot near major arteries, and I think transit could serve that facility.”

And, 10 miles from Portland, it’s far enough away to be useful for commuters, he said.

CAR-POOLING – AND ROLLER-SKIING

According to a 2007 survey, many people who use the state’s park-and-ride lots commute long distance. Although the average car trip in the United States is slightly less than 10 miles, the average person who uses a park-and-ride lot in Maine is traveling nearly 55 miles, according to the study.

The Exit 15 lot could serve as a meeting place for people going to places in Maine besides Portland.

Anthony Jalbert, 28, who’s originally from Fort Kent, has been parking at the lot every day, meeting up with co-workers from Falmouth, Windsor, Buxton and Topsham. They ride in one car to their job site, on a new power line being built in the region.

Car-pooling saves a lot of money on gas, Jalbert said. “I don’t know why more people aren’t doing it,” he said.

In the meantime, with hundreds of open parking spaces, members of Yarmouth’s High School cross country ski team have discovered the vast expanse of flat asphalt. On weekends, they often can be seen roller-skiing in the traffic lane that encircles the parking lot.

They don’t have to worry about cars.

“This is as perfect a place for roller skiing as you can ask for,” said Sam Alexander, a senior.

Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @TomBellPortland