Every day, thousands of workers in who live in the Lewiston-Auburn region — where real estate is more affordable — get in their cars and drive to Portland — where there are more jobs. Same goes for workers who live south of Portland, in the Biddeford-Saco area and farther down to Kennebunk and Wells. A bill under consideration in Augusta would expand public-transit options through Southern and Central Maine, at a time when gas prices are rising and "riding in a car by yourself just isn't an option anymore," says Hilary Frenkel, coordinator for the Maine Alliance for Sustainable Transportation.
WHAT’S POSSIBLE A proposal to expand commuter-bus service in Southern and Central Maine.
"We're looking at ways to reduce Maine's oil dependency," says transit activist and Portland resident Christian MilNeil, who helped shape the legislation. "We've done a good job at trying to make buildings more efficient . . . but the reality is that heating oil isn't as big a source of oil consumption as how far Mainers have to drive everywhere."
The bill, which had its public hearing at the state house on Tuesday, is LD 673, "An Act to Expand Fiscally Responsible Transportation through Increased ZOOM Bus Service," sponsored by Representative Bradley Moulton, a Republican from York. It fills a "really astounding need," says Jane West, senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, while also spreading turnpike toll money throughout the state. In addition to establishing a new express commuter bus service between Portland, Lewiston-Auburn, Augusta, and increasing service along the turnpike corridor to the south, the proposed legislation woos rural legislators by allocating three percent of all turnpike toll money to statewide infrastructure — a/k/a road repairs in parts of the state that don't presently benefit from the turnpike.
The proposal would cost the Maine Turnpike Authority, which currently funds the existing ZOOM bus service between Portland, Biddo, and Saco, about $7 million over 10 years, West says. She points out, to put that number in context, that the MTA is currently spending about $81 million on the York toll plaza, and $150 million to widen nine miles of the turnpike.
An estimated 24,000 workers live and work within walking distance of the proposed route through Lewiston-Auburn and Portland, which would travel downtown corridors, as opposed to the park-and-ride lots that currently serve as ZOOM stops. "It would hit all the major employment hubs," West says, making high ridership more likely. Buses would also offer wi-fi access.
According to MilNeil, supporters did a conservative analysis and concluded that even if a mere five percent of people who live within walking distance of the stops rode the bus, "it would be a worthwhile service," taking in ridership fees that would more than make up the cost of the fleet and drivers.
West says there is very strong Republican support for the bipartisan proposal. That might be odd for a bill that could be characterized as a boon for the environment and economic justice, and it remains unclear whether Governor Paul LePage will throw his weight behind it. As a gubernatorial candidate, LePage was vague about his transportation priorities.