BRUNSWICK — Metro Breez bus service will extend to Brunswick in late August.
The Town Council voted 6-3 Monday to green-light a two-year pilot program that would shuttle commuters to Freeport and Portland.
The approval came after the cost of joining a three-year pilot program dropped significantly since it’s initial proposal.
“I just want to say I think this is a great idea,” resident Sue Stableford, who shares a car with her adult child, told councilors. “I would love to have transportation to Freeport, to Yarmouth and Portland.”
When the Greater Portland Transit District invited Brunswick to join a three-year pilot program two years ago, the town decide it was cost-prohibitive. The pilot launched last June, and connects Freeport and Portland, with stops in Yarmouth and Falmouth.
In December, the cost of extending service declined enough to rekindle council interest. Since then, the cost has dropped by nearly half of what was proposed in December – notably, after Bowdoin College said it would contribute $10,000 each year.
Brunswick will pay about $33,000 for 2017-2018, and almost $43,000 for 2018-2019.
Costs could increase when the pilot program ends, Metro General Manager Greg Jordan said.
At that point, he said, participating towns would “all be at the table” in deciding whether to continue the service.
It costs a flat $3 to ride the Breez. With Brunswick now in the mix, Jordan said fares might increase by $1 or $2 for longer trips.
At a Jan. 20 Business Workforce and Transportation Roundtable hosted by the town and the college, Bowdoin indicated it would benefit greatly from the service; several councilors added Monday they felt the majority of support came from Bowdoin staff and community members.
The bus is also seen as a way to attract workers to Brunswick, which is struggling to fill jobs in a labor market with an unemployment rate of around 2.6 percent.
Councilor Sarah Brayman, who sponsored the agenda item, said there were businesses that closed last summer because they couldn’t find workers; she repeatedly called public transportation “the infrastructure of the future.”
Since Bowdoin is the town’s third-largest employer – with about 930 employees –the college community campaigned for the service, and several councilors said Bowdoin ought to contribute a larger subsidy.
Councilor Suzan Wilson called Bowdoin’s “paltry contribution” an affront, and “in the category of tone-deafness, this Bowdoin College episode meets a new level.”
She admonished the college community for asking taxpayers to foot the majority of a bill for a service that stands to benefit the campus disproportionately – especially, she added, when the college is a tax-exempt entity.
On Tuesday, college spokesman Doug Cook said in an email that Bowdoin’s “primary motivation for subsidizing more than 20 percent of Metro Breez service for the next two years is to improve access for the College and other Brunswick employers to the labor market in Portland. It is, of course, our hope that faculty and staff—many of whom live and pay taxes in Brunswick—and our students will utilize the service, but this was not the key reason behind our decision to support the program.”
“Brunswick’s low unemployment rate combined with transportation limitations are making it increasingly difficult for the College and other employers here to fill jobs with qualified workers. Metro Breez service will help all of us by expanding the available pool of labor beyond our borders,” he added. “We are pleased to support the service because we believe it has the potential to benefit the entire Brunswick community.”
Several councilors said they know of residents unaffiliated with Bowdoin that would appreciate more public transportation – residents like Dunlap Street’s Debbie Atwood.
“I have no connection to Bowdoin. I’m simply a Brunswick taxpayer that would like to take the bus to work,” she said Monday, adding she nearly moved closer to her job in Portland last year because of the commuter traffic on Interstate 295.
The ability to get work done using Wi-Fi on the mid-size Breez buses – which also feature overhead storage and bike racks – appealed to Atwood.
Brunswick Explorer spokesman Craig Zurhorst told the council the Explorer is conducting a transit survey this month to look into expanding, and said he hopes Breez funding won’t siphon resources that would otherwise fund the town’s local public transportation service.
Responding to a confused reaction from Councilor Sarah Brayman, Zurhorst clarified after the meeting that he “is actually in favor of the Breez” and doesn’t feel like the two will compete with each other.
He said his concern was “only from a resource perspective.”
Freeport Town Manager Peter Joseph at the June 2016 launch of Breez bus service from Portland to Freeport. Service this year will expand to Brunswick.
Edited 3/7 to expand and clarify Doug Cook’s comments.