It sounds like a normal list of errands for a college student: Start out in Saco, make a run to the mall, stop at campus, head to an internship on Baxter Boulevard and finally head to downtown Portland.

But this Friday to-do list came with a caveat: Only public transportation could be used. And the trek wasn’t actually performed by a college student — it was undertaken by a team of regional officials involved in shaping the transit system they were using.

Maine is a difficult place to get around relying only on public transportation. The Greater Portland Council of Governments wanted to illustrate the challenge thousands of Mainers face daily by staging an “Amazing Race”-type of event.  Thus, the “Stupendous Tournament of Transit” was born, with more than two dozen public officials trying to navigate their way around southern Maine by bus, train and ferry.

The team playing the fictitious college student began, as did six other teams, at the Saco Transportation Center around 10 a.m. In keeping with the circus-like theme, a juggler-unicyclist-acrobat entertained the teams before they set out.

“Transit Troopers,” the team following the scenario of a college student, had a restriction in their itinerary – trains “freak out” the college student, so Amtrak’s Downeaster was off limits. That was likely because Jennifer Crosby, an official with the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, was a member of the team and allowing the quartet to ride the rails might have been an unfair advantage because her agency helps operate the train that runs between Maine and Boston.

The trip involved seven bus changes, said Kristina Egan, executive director of GPCOG and a member of the “Transit Troopers.”

Egan said team members were initially a little baffled by the challenge.

“I was like, ‘I have no idea how to do this,'” she said, but members of the team were able to log onto transit systems apps on their cellphones and begin to plot their route.

She and her team members were surprised by the number of people on the buses, particularly the beachgoers on a route that took them through Old Orchard Beach.

Left to right, Kristina Egan, executive director of the Greater Portland Council of Governments; Jennifer Crosby of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority; Michael Foster, assistant planner for Old Orchard Beach; and Josh Bradford of the Regional Transportation Program plan their strategy to compete Friday in the Stupendous Tournament of Transit. The event started at the Saco Transportation Center. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

They talked to other riders and found a range of reasons for taking the bus, from families on outings to workers headed to their jobs.

Josh Bradford, another Transit Trooper, said he spoke with a recent transplant from Massachusetts and learned why he was on the bus and the change he sought in transportation.

“The best way he could improve his life is to get his truck back,” Bradford said, explaining that the man was on the bus because his truck was getting repaired.

Egan said she found the buses clean, comfortable and driven by accommodating drivers. And the exercise showed, she said, the need for more and smoother connections between the various public transit systems in Greater Portland.

“We know it’s not seamless right now,” she said, “but we want to improve the system.”

And the teams encountered their share of glitches.

Perian Carpenter, right, of ShuttleBus-ZOOM waves as she boards the Downeaster on Friday at the Saco station as regional transit leaders and elected officials compete in the Stupendous Tournament of Transit. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Alan Minthorn, a Saco city councilor, said his first bus of the day, operated by Zoom, a Biddeford-Saco-Old Orchard Beach transit system, had an annoying malfunction in which the horn went off every 30 seconds or so. It only seemed to occur when the bus was full, Minthorn said, but drew plenty of angry comments from car drivers.

Minthorn was fairly forgiving – he’s on the Zoom board, after all.

“We’ve got old rolling stock,” he said of the system’s buses.

Minthorn said Friday’s exercise showed him that officials from neighboring towns need to work together to improve the links between different bus systems.

Rebecca Grover, an official with the Maine Turnpike Authority, said she learned that plotting a trip using public transit isn’t always smooth.

“It really isn’t that easy. It takes work,” Grover said. “You could be in a private automobile and (a trip) would take 10 minutes, but it takes an hour” by bus.

And making sure you’re headed in the right direction requires effort, she said.

“Being a transit rider isn’t for the introvert. You have to ask questions,” Grover said

The teams weren’t timed because they all had different itineraries – for instance, one went to Peaks Island and another toured Kennebunk and Wells by trolley – but were judged by other criteria, including the use of bus system apps to plan routes and taking advantage of features such as transfers to reduce the cost.

The winner was “Lady and the Tramp,” comprised of Robert Witkowski, with Visit Portland, the city’s tourism agency, and Perian Carpenter, a manager with Zoom. They wracked up points by talking to a lot of fellow passengers and posting frequently on Instagram (#stupendoustransit).


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