A pending deal to launch bus service between Auburn, Wells and Boston is on hold over concerns from the president of the prospective provider, who says the state could hurt his business by subsidizing competing train service.
Concord Coach Lines and the Maine Turnpike Authority have been discussing the proposed service, including construction of a new depot in Auburn, since August.
“This thing is paused because we feel we need to have a bigger policy discussion with the Maine Department of Transportation and the turnpike authority before we go any further,” said Harry Blunt, president of the New Hampshire-based bus company.
Blunt would not specify what he wants from the turnpike authority before closing the deal, saying only that his company needs a “global” discussion with Maine officials about how private intercity bus service fits in with transportation planning and the state’s plans for rail expansion.
What is certain is that the state is not prepared to offer subsidies to Concord Coach Lines for providing new bus service.
“If Mr. Blunt decides to take up more routes, it’s up to him,” said Department of Transportation spokesman Ted Talbot.
Blunt’s concern about subsidies for rail service is unwarranted, Talbot said. The department does not support commuter rail between Portland and Auburn because studies show there’s not enough demand, he said.
Concord Coach Lines has been exploring the feasibility of starting a service that would connect Auburn with Boston’s South Station and Logan International Airport. The route would include stops in Wells and possibly Portland, Blunt said.
The company was one of two that responded to the turnpike authority’s request in July for letters of interest in adding stops at the park-and-ride lot at turnpike Exit 75 in Auburn and the Downeaster train station in Wells. Both properties are underused and owned by the turnpike authority.
The service would provide five daily round trips to Boston, Blunt said.
His major complaint is that intercity bus service has not been included in the state’s public transportation policy, which he described as being focused exclusively on expanding rail service.
Amtrak’s Downeaster rail service, for example, received a $35 million federal grant for its 30-mile extension last year from Portland to Brunswick. About half of Amtrak’s operating costs in Maine are covered by public money.
Blunt said he doesn’t want to invest millions for a new bus service — each coach costs $500,000 — and then see his ticket prices undercut by a heavily subsidized train service.
Rail advocates and legislators in Portland and the Lewiston-Auburn area have been lobbying to start commuter rail service between Portland and Auburn. Rail supporters say they are encouraged by last month’s filing by the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad, which is seeking to suspend freight service on its line between Auburn and Portland.
Blunt said Maine’s transportation priorities are much different from those in his home state of New Hampshire, which has rejected passenger rail proposals but supported commuter bus service. Blunt noted that New Hampshire has built half a dozen bus terminals near exits of congested highways, and that several bus companies operate out of them, including his.
The deal being discussed by the Maine Turnpike Authority and Concord Coach Lines calls for the bus company to pay the entire cost of a new bus terminal in Auburn, and the cost of expanding the parking area. The company would rent the site for $1 a year. After 20 years, the turnpike authority would assume ownership of the facility, said Peter Mills, the authority’s executive director.
In Wells, the bus company could use the current train station and parking area, but it would have to pay for any expansion, said Blunt.
While the state won’t subsidize bus service, the Department of Transportation may help pay for a bus station or platform in partnership with municipalities, Talbot said, “if there’s an appetite.”
Mills said he initially asked Blunt more than a year ago to consider adding a stop in Wells. Blunt later told him that he wanted to start service in both Wells and Auburn. The authority then issued the request for letters of interest. Of the two companies that responded, Concord Coach Lines was the only one that was qualified.
If Blunt needs to have discussions with Department of Transportation officials so he can feel more “comfortable” about the project, Mills said he is willing to try to make that happen.
Concord Coach Lines could start service in Wells without any infrastructure investment, Mills said, but the bus line would have to expand the pavement area and build a new station in Auburn. He noted that the turnpike authority would provide the land.
“It would require capital investment on his part,” Mills said. “I don’t blame him for being cautious.”
Concord Coach Lines built and owns the Portland Transportation Center, and operates a frequent service between Portland and Boston. The state built the train platform at the transportation center and pays rent for the Downeaster’s ticket office. It also pays the bus company to help manage the facility.
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:[email protected]Twitter: @TomBellPortland