In the midst of the Great Depression, my great-grandfather, Joseph Dallaire, took his family from their farm in Canton, Maine, to the mill city of Biddeford, where he was believed to be the last public works employee in the city with a horse and wagon. As they adjusted to city life, his children, and later my parents, began taking trolleys and buses throughout York County.

When families like mine who couldn’t afford cars wanted respite from their daily routine, especially in the summers, they’d board the bus for 10 cents and go to The Pier at Old Orchard Beach. A trolley still runs in Biddeford, Saco and Old Orchard for 73 days during summer months, when upwards of 1,500 people ride the trolley daily. And many people have requested the local shuttle bus expand its route ”“ evidence there is still a need for public transportation.

Historically, buses and trolleys were funded by the private sector; local businesses knew passengers would see their storefronts and likely make stops to shop. Today, funding is mainly from the federal government; only 17 percent comes from fares. Because Maine is a rural state with an aging population, there is a need for more reliable bus service connecting its small but commercially important urban areas. Without reliable transportation, many people aren’t able to commit to employment, lose their independence and become prisoners in their homes.

My grandmother, Grace Kerry McNally, who died last November at age 99, never had a driver’s license; the bus was a savior for her from adolescence to motherhood. In 1923, she had a job as a babysitter in OOB. Every day, she’d get on the trolley in front of Cote’s Funeral Home in Saco and was dropped off in Old Orchard Beach. As a mother of six in the 1950s, the bus enabled her to take her kids to the beach, the library or bowling.

As a teen, my mother and her best friend would buy a hot bag of cashews from J.J. Newbury’s on Main Street in Biddeford and then “ride the bus loop” through town for 15 cents. My father recalls paying 5 cents to take the bus with his brother from Saco Avenue in OOB to Woolworth’s on Main Street in Biddeford, where they bought their parents a cardboard manger scene of the baby Jesus for Christmas. My uncle and father (then ages 9 and 10) had earned their money picking blueberries on the Ross Road in Saco and had the independence of the bus to spend it.

Al Schutz, executive director of Shuttle Bus-Zoom ”“ Biddeford, Saco and Old Orchard’s bus service ”“ notes that buses provide safety and accountability. Today’s bus drivers follow federal regulations and are monitored for safety. Schutz says some elderly people have expressed fear of taking the bus because they’re afraid of getting lost or left somewhere. To ease their fear, Schutz coordinates schedules with assisted living facilities such as The Pines in Ocean Park and arranges to accompany passengers so as to gain familiarity with routes ”“ what he calls “mobility management” ”“ to reassure them the drivers are trustworthy and buses are safe.

When the private sector partners with Shuttle Bus, door-to-door service and expanded routes are made possible. Elderly passengers appreciate that they no longer have to cross an icy parking lot at Shaw’s Supermarket in winter; instead they’re dropped off at the door.

I was surprised when I toured the buses; they looked and smelled clean, had bike racks, the commuter buses have Wi-Fi and adapters, and I could’ve fallen asleep in one of the comfy, reclining seats.

And while our cars provide freedom, it’s at a cost. It’s as much as $9,000 annually to maintain a vehicle. Riding the bus seven days a week, 12 months a year, costs less than $2,000 annually. You can get anywhere the buses go, from Biddeford to Old Orchard Beach, for $1.25. It costs $5 for the Commuter Shuttle that travels up the turnpike and people can park at Park & Rides for free. Admittedly, I’m unwilling to give up my car full time, but with a clean, reliable, convenient, affordable bus system available, I’m more inclined to hop on a bus from time to time.

— Nicole Petit holds a bachelor’s degree in history and a masters in American and New England studies. Petit has spent the past 10 years working for nonprofit groups that deal primarily with disabilities and child welfare. She is originally from Portland, but has strong family ties to Biddeford/Saco.

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