BIDDEFORD – York County commuters, take note: Route changes and fare increases are planned for several bus lines.

The public will have a chance to weigh in next week on changes proposed by the Biddeford Saco Old Orchard Beach Transit Committee, aimed at making the ShuttleBus and Zoom Turnpike Express services more financially stable.

The changes are prompted by low ridership on certain routes and a lag in fare increases in recent years, combined with rising costs such as gas prices.

Routes would be reduced for the Tri-Town service in Biddeford, Saco and Old Orchard Beach, and Portland Intercity service taking riders from the tri-town area to Portland. Prices would increase for monthly and quarterly passes for the Zoom Turnpike Express, a commuter service from Biddeford and Saco to Portland.

A public hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m. Sept. 29 at Saco City Hall. If the changes are approved by the transit committee after the hearing, they will take effect Oct. 3.

Sh-Zoom Executive Director Al Schutz said the changes are in part recommendations by the Maine Department of Transportation, one funding source for the transit system, which has an annual operating budget of $1.5 million. Other funding comes from Federal Transit Administration grants, local governments and private sector support, as well as fares and advertising sales.

Schutz said ridership has increased about 6 percent overall this year, but low ridership on Sunday and night routes — with only two to five passengers at any given time — have been a problem for years. With operating costs around $40 to $50 per hour per bus, he said, the low ridership affects the overall system.

The changes were recommended three years ago to the previous director, but never implemented, Schutz said. At this point, he said, the organization will face a budget shortfall if it doesn’t make the changes.

“I’m more of an expansionist, but right now we have to get it right-sized,” Schutz said. Once the financial picture improves, Sh-Zoom can consider expanding service, he said.

One commuter, Steve Kelley of Kennebunk, said he would pay a higher price but thinks that cutting routes is a bad idea. A daily walk-on roundtrip fare is $10, and even with an increase to $100 for a monthly pass, that works out to a 50 percent discount for daily commuters.

“To find transportation shrinking, I find that alarming and shortsighted,” said Kelley, who waited for the Zoom bus at the Biddeford Park & Ride on Wednesday morning with a half-dozen other riders.

The Zoom bus makes 10 round trips a day and had a drop in ridership in the fiscal year that ended in July. In fiscal year 2010-11, there were 33,889 riders, down from 35,659 riders in 2009-10, which was comparable to the year before.

Kelley, who works with the visually impaired at the Iris Network in Portland, said public transportation is important for many people and is lacking outside Portland.

Another commuter, Rob Barclay of Biddeford, said he takes the bus to Portland three times a week for school, and it saves him money on gas and tolls. While he won’t be affected by the fare increase or route changes, he thinks they could be detrimental.

“It’s going to put a lot of people that work on Sundays in a situation that will hurt their pockets,” Barclay said.

Schutz said the routes to be cut have the lowest passenger counts. At any given time, there are maybe two to five people riding those buses, he said.

“We’re trying to limit the impact on everybody. It’s a tough thing for me to do,” Schutz said.

He hopes the changes will provide financial stability for the transit system. Schutz anticipates that the economy and high gas prices will continue to push people to public transportation and hopes that within two years, the system can expand services.

Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at: [email protected]