Bus alliance battles to reinstall USM shuttle bidding

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Some University of Southern Maine students disembark from a shuttle bus Tuesday afternoon in Gorham while others board for a return trip to the Portland campus.

Some University of Southern Maine students disembark from a shuttle bus Tuesday afternoon in Gorham while others board for a return trip to the Portland campus.

GORHAM — Owners of local bus lines are banding together to try and reverse the University of Southern Maine’s shift to METRO from private bus operators to shuttle students between the Gorham and Portland campuses.

The agreement with METRO opens up public transit for Gorham.

Private bus operators have contracted with the university for decades to transport university students. But, a METRO service begins in August 2018 when a contract with Custom Coach & Limousine, a Gorham company, expires.

The alliance of bus operators, claiming unfair competition from METRO, is upset that private companies didn’t have the opportunity to bid for the university’s shuttle service and that taxpayers’ money will subsidize the deal with METRO, the Greater Portland Transit District.

Now, the alliance of bus operators is mounting a letter writing campaign in hopes of reversing the university’s decision. They are reaching out to political figures and the university’s campus newspaper while turning to social media to contact students.

 “My company has been providing direct shuttle service, with bike racks, between USM’s Gorham and Portland campuses for several years,” Gregg Isherwood, owner of Custom Coach, said in a recent letter to the editor of the USM Free Press.

“My company and others will be meeting with many public leaders to discuss this very unwise change in the very near future.”

Under the university’s agreement, METRO would stretch its public transit to Gorham next August. As is the case with Custom Coach, the 8,000 university students and staff members would ride free with passes. Members of the general public would be charged a fare by METRO.

Isherwood said in his letter to the Free Press that his drivers say students are “angry” with the university’s decision to switch the service to METRO.

A university sophomore, Valerie Ziehler, said Tuesday afternoon while waiting inside Bailey Hall on the Gorham campus for the Custom Coach bus she likes the current bus service. She said buses are always on time and she has never experienced a problem.

“I’ve never been late to a class because of the bus,” Ziehler said.

Students do homework on the bus and one student boarding during Tuesday’s stormy weather said Custom Coach buses are roomy and warm.

Mark Robinson, a spokesman for the alliance of bus operators, said it will try to reach university students. “We know they are angry over the changes,” Robinson said Tuesday in an email.

But Humza Khan, a university student from Gorham, said in a recent email to the American Journal that the agreement with METRO makes sense and he believes the “majority” of students would agree. “The most important point that I would like to make is that this contract with METRO gives us free access to all other routes as well, which opens up an incredible amount of opportunity for USM students,” said Khan, a former president of the student body.

METRO’s extension of transit to Gorham would run through Westbrook and along Brighton Avenue in Portland. METRO would also add a new route from Westbrook’s Prides Corner area through the city’s downtown to the Maine Mall in South Portland.

The bus alliance is seeking intervention in hopes of reinstituting a bid process for the student shuttle. Robinson said the alliance this week is writing letters to Gov. Paul LePage and University of Maine System Chancellor James Page.

The university’s cost under the METRO deal would run about $400,000 a year, nearly the same as the current contract with Custom Coach. The private bus lines will still compete for the university’s charter services for athletic teams and other trips.

A national bus association is on board with the alliance in Maine. “The American Bus Association, the industry leader advancing the North American motorcoach, travel and tour industry, urges the Federal Transit Administration to address issues over displaced operators of private scheduled bus services,” the association said in a press release that pointed to the “unsubsidized” private operator’s loss of the University of Southern Maine shuttle contract.

Robert Lowell can be reached at 854-2577 or rlowell@keepmecurrent.com.