BRUNSWICK

The town council on Monday approved funding to expand a bus service pilot program linking Brunswick with Portland.

The 6-3 decision was met with some hesitation, even by those who approved it. Several council members expressed concerns about tightening budgets and other unmet needs that exist in the community.

Councilor Kathy Wilson said that although expanding transportation services for Brunswick residents and Bowdoin College is the right thing to do, she was not certain she wanted to do it. Chairwoman Alison Harris said although she loves public transportation and remembered it as the only option growing up in a metropolitan area, she described a feeling of near panic thinking about the town budget. She suggested the town look for additional ways to help offset the cost of the project.

Councilors David Watson, John Perreault and Suzan Wilson voted against the expansion.

In January, Greg Jordan, general manager of Portland Metro, the parent company of the Metro BREEZ, and community members held a roundtable workshop to discuss how the service would impact local employers trying to attract workers, and other points of interest important to the health of the town’s economy. Since initially pitching the expansion idea, the cost of the service was reduced by 30 percent, said councilor and sponsor Sarah Brayman.

As approved, Brunswick is expected to expend about $76,000 spanning two years, with Bowdoin College donating $20,000 for the initial two years of service. Bowdoin’s contribution is what attributed to the lowering of the initial costs.

In the first year, Brunswick will contribute $33,000. In the second year, costs to the town will rise to $42,000. In the third year, if the program continues, the cost will rise to about $80,000. The estimated cost of the third year is a jump because the first two years are subsidized due to it being a pilot program. The actual cost incurred by the town following the first two years is not fixed.

When asked if the measure is binding, Town Manager John Eldridge said, legally, it may not be, but if the council votes to fund the pilot, then it will remain committed to fulfilling its promise. The company requested the commitment at Monday’s meeting because it must purchase a new bus to expand the service.

Metro BREEZ currently operates in Freeport, Falmouth, Yarmouth and Portland, with annual ridership totaling between 23,000 and 26,000 with a goal to increase to 30,000 users. With the addition of Brunswick, the company has estimated it will add about 10,000 to that base number. The service operates on a flat fee of $3 per ride, and it is yet to be determined if expanding to Brunswick will increase that fee.

The tentative timeline for the start of service is August 2017, with stops in the downtown area, Bowdoin College and Cook’s Corner. Jordan said stops will be determined by which are the most advantageous locations for the community.

The general manager presented the plan for expanding service to Brunswick, explaining that, essentially, the expansion will be a two-year test to see how it works for communities. During the pilot program time, the company will track factors such as ridership, accidents, quality and service to determine the future of the expanded route to the town.

Brayman said she views the expansion as an infrastructure investment.

“We regularly hear from people about the desire for more public transportation,” she said, citing a 2007 Freeport survey that indicated 33 percent of the 700 responders to the survey said they would use public transportation and of those, 75 percent said they would go to Brunswick.

“If we don’t do it, Topsham will,” she said.

Resident Debbie Atwood, who commutes to Portland for work, said she considered relocating because of the distance and the associated headache of driving in heavy traffic. The expanded service would be a welcome opportunity, she said, adding that employers may offer to pay for passes for workers rather than parking places, and the commute on the bus could be a productive time with access to the internet.

Perreault, who voted against the measure, said although the plan is a good idea, he would be more apt to support the expansion if it was funded from the existing unassigned balance portion of the budget. But he could not ultimately support it because he does not want to raise taxes to pay for it.

Craig Zurhorst, community relations director for Western Maine Transportation Services, which operates the Brunswick Explorer, said although he is pleased the council voted to support public transportation in the area, he was concerned funding for the BREEZ could impact the Explorer’s financial needs.

While he supports the idea of Metro’s proposal to bring service to Brunswick, Zurhorst said enthusiasm is tempered out of concern that the commitment required of the town support the BREEZ would consume resources which might otherwise be invested in the Brunswick Explorer, which is a direct service to residents and arriving visitors. He said the Explorer has asked for $60,000 from the town, although the company ideally wanted to request $80,000, because, Zuhorst explained, the operation is still proving itself as a valuable asset to the town.

Brayman said she does not see the two entities as competition, but that they would complement each other, as they provide two difference services, with the Explorer providing local circulation and BREEZ filling a gap in the system to expand transportation to Freeport and Portland. She conceded money is scarce, but said she did not anticipate pitting the two against each other.

The town council will meet again Monday, March 20.

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Bus service

METRO BREEZ currently operates in Freeport, Falmouth, Yarmouth and Portland, with annual ridership totaling between 23,000 and 26,000 with a goal to increase to 30,000 users. The service operates on a flat fee of $3 per ride.



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