Three communities north of Portland have to decide whether they will steeply increase their financial backing to maintain an express commuter shuttle to Portland that has beaten revenue and ridership expectations since it started in 2016.

Metro, the Portland-area public transportation company, launched the Breez shuttle in 2016 to provide buses linking Portland to Falmouth, Yarmouth and Freeport. Ridership has surpassed projections, especially since Metro added more runs and eliminated the Falmouth stop, and Brunswick joined the route in 2017.

Back in 2016, Metro predicted that 45,000 riders a year would take the service by 2019. But by June, the agency expects to have 65,000 riders using the Breez buses. Fare revenue, which will pay for about 30 percent of shuttle operations this year, beat expectations by 10 percentage points.

“We are pretty well over where we thought we would be,” Metro General Manager Greg Jordan said.

But federal funding granted three years ago to jump-start the service will likely run out this year. That leaves Brunswick, Freeport and Yarmouth with a choice: steeply increase financial contributions to make the shuttle a permanent fixture or risk losing it.

Mike Spaulding, 46, of Brunswick hopes the service stays. He was one of a handful of riders who got on the northbound shuttle in Monument Square in Portland on Monday afternoon.

Spaulding says he didn’t even know the shuttle existed until a few months ago. Now, he takes it almost every day to his job at E. Perry Iron and Metal, a scrapyard on Lancaster Street in Portland.

He used to dread his commute back and forth to the city. Now, the 45-minute ride doesn’t seem so bad.

“I get to chill out,” Spaulding said. “I look at all the people on the highway, and I’m glad I’m not one of them.”

INCREASING COSTS

Yarmouth, Portland, Brunswick and Freeport would be asked to pay almost $78,000 a year to support the shuttle starting in 2020. Last year, Yarmouth and Freeport each paid $30,345 for the service and Brunswick paid $52,644, according to Metro projections. The three communities also are being asked to pay $36,764 this year to support the Breez – the additional funding is needed because Metro and the towns have conflicting budget years, Jordan said.

The higher price is partially because the three communities would be expected to join Metro and have representation on the board. During the trial period, Metro absorbed some of the overhead costs, such as administration, related to running the Breez. If the three towns join the regional transit agency, they would be responsible for their full share of the cost, Jordan said.

The Metro board has five representatives from Portland, three from Westbrook and two from Falmouth. If Brunswick, Freeport and Yarmouth join, the towns would each get one board representative, and Portland would increase its seats to eight. The city provides 70-80 percent of Metro’s funding, so it is entitled to at least but no more than half the board seats, Jordan said in a letter to the three towns.

Despite the added financial requirement, Jordan thinks towns will sign on to the new arrangement.

The Breez commuter bus makes its way along Congress Street in Portland on Monday. The Breez has been more popular than anticipated and Portland Metro is proposing to make the route to the northern suburbs permanent, but it needs more money from the towns. Press Herald photo by Gregory Rec

“I don’t anticipate any of the three communities pulling out of the project,” he said. “Everyone agrees it has been a success, especially as traffic has increased on I-295,” he added, referring to growing congestion and accidents on the four-lane highway north of Portland. If the service becomes permanent, Metro will  consider extending the service south to Scarborough and Saco by 2021.

“We are at the beginning of what the Breez is capable of doing,” Jordan said.

COMMUTER SERVICES

The Breez runs 13 round trips on weekdays and seven round trips on  Saturday. The shuttle has 15 stops, including Hannaford supermarket and the Town Hall in Yarmouth, Maine Beer Co. and L.L. Bean in Freeport, and the passenger train station and Bowdoin College in Brunswick.

Tickets cost $3 and it takes about an hour to get from Brunswick to Portland. Buses are equipped with power connections and WiFi.

Portland has the most shuttle boardings and alightings, followed by Brunswick, Freeport and Yarmouth, according to Metro statistics.

Yarmouth Town Manager Nat Tupper said the Town Council has not discussed the Metro proposal in detail, but there is money in the current budget proposal to fulfill the agency’s six-month bridge funding request.

“I have not heard from councilors to expect any opposition to it, the Metro Breez has been a big success and is highly valued in Yarmouth,” Tupper said. “I receive a lot of compliments and encouragement from Yarmouth people hoping it will continue and they hope the council supports it.”

In Brunswick, however, the cost increase was enough to give Town Council Chairman John Perreault pause. The town first declined to join the Breez service  over cost concerns, but later decided to join.

The council has not discussed the Metro proposal, but his perception is that councilors will be receptive to the idea, Perreault said. The service is popular in town and he frequently sees people lining up to wait for the shuttle.

“I do think it is an advantage having it. I guess it all depends what they are asking us for in increased funding,” he said.

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 91-6325 or at:
[email protected]