Bus support up — and down

The Lakes Region Explorer bus stops at Elm Street in Portland this week.

NAPLES — The Lakes Region Explorer bus service is charting new territory – though the ride has had its ups and downs recently.

While the regional bus service is being recognized this week with a national transportation award and will expand service to Saturdays starting July 1, it has also lost financial support from one of the towns it services.

The bus – which now runs from Bridgton to Portland five days during the week and makes several stops along Route 302 in Naples, Casco, Raymond, Windham and Westbrook – has been awarded a 2017 Excellence in Regional Transportation Award from the Washington, D.C.,-based National Association of Development Organizations.

Service began in 2013 with the original route going as far north as Naples, and since then, the bus has had some difficulties gaining traction with riders in the area. But operators have seen enough positive momentum, including a nearly 48 percent growth in ridership from 5,966 rides in fiscal year 2015 to 8,814 rides in fiscal year 2016, to expand services to Saturdays.

Despite that uptick in overall ridership, voters in Naples narrowly turned down funding for the bus this year after supporting it in past budgets. Discussion from Naples officials and residents at the annual town meeting earlier this month included concerns that not enough Naples residents were actually using the bus to justify the town expenses.

“Yes, the word from Naples about their funding is a disappointment, but we do understand. All municipalities now and the state are very pressed for funds in these difficult times, and each town and city had to make difficult decisions. So we respect their decision,” said Jack De Beradinis, executive director at the Regional Transportation Program in Portland that operates the bus service.

“With that said, we’re going to continue the service, and we will talk to the administration in the town in the coming year and ask that they put the referendum out to the voters next year with the hope that they will renew their funding commitment,” De Beradinis continued.

The towns of Bridgton, Naples, Casco, Raymond and Windham have provided financial support for the the bus in previous years, De Beradinis said in an earlier interview before the vote in Naples. He said that the town contributions to the service have totaled about $48,000 total between them, or roughly $9,600 per town.

The Lakes Region Explorer is a collaborative effort between several local, regional, state and federal partners. The Regional Transportation Program oversees the day-to-day management of the bus with support and input from the Greater Portland Council of Governments, MaineDOT, the Federal Transportation Administration and the Community Transportation Association of America, along with the several towns involved.

While the total yearly cost of the service started around $142,000 and has increased, De Beradinis said that the amount RTP has asked from the towns has remained the same. Other funding sources include state and federal investment, as well as ticket sales from the bus, which costs $3 per one way trip ($2 for seniors and students) regardless of where a rider gets on or off.

None of the five towns had completely withdrawn it’s financial support until this year, but Raymond had scaled back it’s contribution last year to $5,000 in funding. However, Raymond upped that amount to $7,000 this year.

Raymond Selectman Joe Bruno said that while he knows people who use the bus service, he doesn’t see the ridership numbers adding up to a good return for taxpayers.

“I don’t think we ought to be funding it, honestly,” Bruno said in a phone interview several weeks ago.

“I look out for the Raymond taxpayer and where their money goes,” Bruno continued. “I just don’t think it’s a well thought-out plan.”

Naples voters turned down the bus funding in a close 26-24 vote at the annual town meeting on June 7 that required a count by the moderator. Several residents expressed their belief that it is a valuable service, but the funding was ultimately defeated.

“The problem is, everyone is waiting for the first town to say no, and nobody wants to be the first town to say no,” said newly elected Naples Selectboard Chairman and previous Budget Committee Chairman Jim Grattelo before voting against the bus funding. “This is a very expensive proposition for very few riders. And we’ve tried to get the information (from the bus service), and I think one of the reasons that we’re not getting the information is because the information is not going to support the expense.”

Multiple town officials indicated that bus service officials were asked to come and present ridership numbers to the town but declined to do so. There was also some debate as to whether the $9,600 town contribution was supposed to be a one time figure or renewed each year.

De Beradinis said in an interview that he had not heard about any requests to come to Naples to explain ridership numbers, and that “we certainly would have been there” if he had. He said that he made a similar presentation to Raymond officials, and that he was sorry if there was some sort of misunderstanding between RTP and Naples.

Naples Town Manager Ephrem Paraschak clarified in an interview that the town had recieved general ridership and financial information from RTP. Paraschak speculated that when members of the selectboard said they weren’t getting the information, they meant information specifically about how many Naples residents use the bus.

The data collected by the bus service lays out how many boardings happen in each town, but does not include each rider’s town of residence. From October 2015 to September 2016, the stop in Naples had 1,123 boardings.

De Beradinis also said that the $9,600 was always supposed to be a yearly contribution – and conceded that RTP could perhaps do a better job communicating with the towns about the annual funding.

“To use a corny analogy, it’s a bump along the way on the road. We’ll get through this. The service, I expect, will continue,” said De Beradinis. “And I’m hopeful that maybe RTP can make communication a little clearer each year that we are ready and willing to meet with the budget committees and town members about the annual funding allocations.”

The town managers in Bridgton, Casco, and Windham said that their towns are continuing to support the bus service with the full $9,600 in funding.

Matt Junker can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or mjunker@theforecaster.net.  Follow him on Twitter: @MattJunker.

The Lakes Region Explorer bus stops at Elm Street in Portland this week.

The Lakes Region Explorer makes a stop in Naples during its inaugural run in November 2013.