October 12, 2012

Bill Nemitz: Will Falmouth throw the bus under the bus?

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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