PORTLAND – The Maine Alliance for Sustainable Transportation’s proposal demanding a $7 million, toll-funded expansion of Zoom bus service along the Maine Turnpike makes for interesting reading.

Unfortunately it’s woefully short of facts. But it didn’t have to be so.

Last March MAST provided the Maine Turnpike Authority with a review copy of their Zoom expansion proposal that included significant turnpike-related information.

After careful analysis, the MTA responded with two pages of corrected data that MAST chose to dismiss, presumably because the truth substantially undercut their argument. As a result, the recently released MAST proposal is rife with inaccuracies, misconceptions and disinformation.

First and foremost, MAST’s plan is predicated on a proposed 9-mile, $100 million-plus turnpike widening plan in the Portland area that no longer exists, a fact the MTA communicated to MAST six months ago but was conveniently ignored.

With traffic volumes down over the past few years, the MTA staff is recommending to its board this fall a new 10-year plan that has significantly reduced the scope of the proposed Portland widening.

The MTA’s most recent plan involves only 2 miles of new lane construction between Exit 46 and Exit 48 at an estimated cost of $16 million. What’s more, the projected start date has been pushed out from 2015 to 2018.

In his recent Maine Voices piece, MAST member Christian MilNeil claimed the current Zoom bus receives “no subsidies from state and local governments.”

While that’s true, MilNeil fails to disclose that Zoom’s $320,000 annual budget contains just $95,000 from fares.

The balance is split between subsidies of $115,000 from turnpike toll payers and $110,000 from federal taxpayers.

With an average of 180 Zoom commuters daily, that works out to a subsidy of $1,250 per rider annually. Hardly the “proven model” of self-sustainability that MilNeil touts.

To bolster MAST’s argument, MilNeil further claimed that “full buses and overloaded Park and Ride lots” constrain the future growth of Zoom.

However, statistics show that, on an average weekday, each 29-seat Zoom bus carries just 15 passengers and the Biddeford Park and Ride lot is only 58 percent occupied, leaving 14 bus seats empty and 65 parking spaces vacant.

These figures mirror a 21 percent decline in Zoom ridership from FY 2009 to FY 2010.

The Zoom buses currently operate between Biddeford/Saco and Portland, the turnpike’s busiest corridor, carrying more than 65,000 vehicles on an average day.

To help alleviate this congestion, in 1998 the MTA proactively created Zoom in collaboration with MaineDOT.

However, despite ongoing marketing efforts and perennially heavy traffic, only 0.8 percent of the 22,300 travelers who specifically commute from Biddeford/Saco to Portland utilize Zoom.

A similar comparison can be made regarding the 3,100 Augusta-to-Portland commuters and 5,100 Lewiston/Auburn-to-Portland commuters who drive the turnpike daily.

Assuming the same 0.8 percent market penetration as Biddeford/Saco, these two corridors would yield a total of just 66 new bus riders for the additional $7 million MAST proposes to legislatively force the MTA to invest in Zoom.

That works out to a jaw-dropping $29,756 per-rider subsidy systemwide for the first year.

If there’s any good news, it’s that the subsidy would drop to a mere eyebrow-raising $8,536 per rider each year thereafter.

For a comparatively paltry $241 subsidy per commuter, the turnpike-supported GoMaine program has attracted 2,690 people to participate in carpools and vanpools, ride mass transit or bike to work.

It’s just one of the many alternative transportation programs the MTA continues to sustain, along with Zoom, MOVE!, Park and Ride lots and the like.

MaineDOT is in the process of performing a traffic study that will, in part, identify where the greatest need for mass transit exists from Portland to the north.

Preliminary indications are that the Portland-to-Brunswick I-295 corridor has a much more pressing need for a commuter bus program than either of the turnpike routes MAST espouses.

With that in mind, this past July the MTA asked MAST to wait a few months until MaineDOT completed its study before settling on any conclusions; MAST ignored the MTA once again.

And that’s truly unfortunate, because in the end we both strive toward the same goal: making prudent, cost-effective transportation investments that lead to safer highways, less congestion, cleaner air and an overall better quality of life.

The only difference is the Maine Turnpike Authority prefers to make logical decisions backed by accurate data.


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