A traveler waiting at the bus stop outside of the Brunswick Visitors Center on Monday. C. Thacher Carter / The Times Record

Public transportation services in the Brunswick area may see a boost in ridership due to soaring gas prices that are driving up the cost of a commute nationwide.

As of Monday, the American Automobile Association reported that the average cost of gas in Maine stood at $4.26 per gallon, compared to $3.49 a month ago and $2.81 a year ago. Nationally, the average was $4.32 on Monday, and Cumberland County’s average was $4.33.

According to Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority Executive Director Patricia Quinn, the Brunswick-Boston Downeaster service traditionally sees a boost when gas prices soar, although the train’s ridership historically trends upward, and there’s no proof of a causal relationship.

For example, between 2007 and 2008 when gas prices jumped between 60 cents and $1.10 per gallon, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In that time, the Downeaster’s annual ridership went from roughly 333,000 to 416,000 – an over 22% increase and the largest one-year jump in the last 20 years.

“We’ve definitely seen it, and we definitely know that … when gas prices go up and become a talking point, that it does encourage people and incentivize people to look at other alternatives,” Quinn said. “We’ve seen that in the past, and we’ve been fortunate to get that ridership.”

The train is powered by diesel engines, and a round-trip ticket from Brunswick to Boston costs a maximum of $60. A car that gets 20 miles per gallon filled up at $4.33 per gallon driven from the Brunswick Visitor Center to North Station and back — a distance of about 262 miles — would cost $56.72, excluding the cost of tolls and parking.


The Downeaster pulling into the Brunswick Visitors Center on Monday. C. Thacher Carter / The Times Record

Craig Zurhorst, the community relations director of Western Maine Transportation Services, also said Monday that in the past, when gas prices increase, so does the nonprofit’s ridership. He estimated that, depending on the severity of the gas price increase and the specific route, ridership historically has gone up between 10% and 20%.

Western Maine Transportation Services operates the Brunswick Link, the public bus line in town that launched in December 2021, as well as 11 other transportation services in Maine.

It’s difficult to know if the Brunswick Link’s ridership will be impacted, Zurhorst said, primarily due to it being a new service and uncertainties stemming from the pandemic, like the current job market and where peoples’ budgets stand.

“I would hope that people would take a peek at the possibilities and opportunities that public transits may offer them, a friend or a family member,” Zurhorst said. “I’d also point out that this is a very good time to advocate for more robust public transit funding at the state level. The offerings that could be provided would be so much greater if funding in the state of Maine were even equal to funding in most other states.”

Zurhorst did not have ridership numbers for the Link Monday, although he said it has been trending upwards since the launch. In November, The Times Record reported that the route consists of 27 stop locations through Brunswick, with 44 stops per run.

In the timeframe of Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 in 2017, 2018 and 2019 annual ridership for the Brunswick Explorer, Brunswick’s old transit system, was at 20,731, 22,963 and 22,985, respectively. An all-day pass costs $5.


Those interviewed at the bus and train stops in Brunswick on Monday said while the cost of gas was not the primary motivator in choosing public transit, avoiding it was just an added perk.

The loading dock for the Downeaster in Brunswick. C. Thacher Carter / The Times Record

“I’m from New York originally where I didn’t really need a car and moving up here, I just decided just not to have one,” said Brunswick resident Grace Denker, who was taking the METRO BREEZ to Portland. “I personally wish public transit was a little more streamlined.”

Brunswick resident Tom Walek was traveling to New York City by bus and train Monday, and said he uses the services every month or so. “It’s relaxing, I enjoy it, I can get work done,” Walek said, adding that avoiding gas prices is just “another good reason to take public transportation.”

Mike O’Neil of Dallas, Texas, said he took the Downeaster from Boston, and then was picked up in Portland to come to Brunswick and visit his daughter.

“The weather was bad when I came up and so normally, I’d probably rent a car,” O’Neil said, adding he felt the price point was fair, and the cost of gas didn’t sway him. “I’m very much an advocate, it’s one of the problems of living in Texas is Texans don’t embrace public transportation like they do here in the Northeast.”

The Downeaster’s ridership dropped from about 574,000 people in 2019 to 146,000 people in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, a ridership of about 283,000 was reported.

A preliminary proposal by a subsidiary of Finger Lakes Railway to expand passenger rail service from Brunswick to Rockland was still under review as of Monday.

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.