BRUNSWICK — Plans for any expansion of the Brunswick Explorer bus service are on hold since the Town Council tabled a proposal for four downtown flag stops at a Sept. 17 meeting.
The decision comes after ridership increased by nearly 10,000 rides since last year, said Lee Karker, executive director of Coastal Trans, the service’s parent company.
He said the bus provided 26,000 rides between September 2011 and August 2012, up from 17,500 rides in the service’s first year.
The flag stop proposal was a result of multiple requests from riders seeking easier access to downtown, Karker said.
“There’s no convenient place for us to stop,” Karker said at the meeting. But he proposed flag stops at the corners of Mill and Maine streets, School Street and Park Row, Jordan Avenue and Federal Street, and Green and Federal streets.
“Those stops have been requested by a number of people, because there’s a long way between those points.”
Now those riders will have to wait, because the council has moved any discussion of new stops to its Master Plan Implementation Committee, which is charged with recommending improvements for the downtown area.
“The ball is in Coastal Trans’ court to make the case for this, so we can really support it,” said Councilor Margo Knight, the committee’s chair.
The town of Brunswick is one of several funding sources for the Brunswick Explorer, and has appropriated $16,500 for the service every fiscal year since 2010, according to Town Manager Gary Brown.
Councilor John Perrault, the committee’s vice chair, said the town doesn’t have funds to pay for extending the hours of bus service, but that there might be some room for change.
While a subcomittee on pedestrian and vehicular movement is expected to meet sometime in October, Knight said it is not clear when or what kind of an expansion would be proposed.
“I don’t know how it will all play out,” Perrault added.
Currently, the bus follows a crooked L-shaped path around the downtown, with stops at the Hannaford supermarket, at Brunswick Station, at the corner of Bath Road and Federal Street and at the People Plus building on Cumberland and Union streets.
Councilor Sarah Brayman said during the Sept. 17 meeting she was surprised to learn the bus didn’t stop on Maine Street or the several blocks between downtown and the existing stops.
“I would prefer to see a regular stop downtown, but I would rather not take up those parking spots,” she said during the meeting. She thought the four proposed flag stops were a good compromise.
A flag stop is designed so that the bus will only stop if someone is there, Karker said. The bus would take an estimated 15-20 seconds to load any new riders – a short amount of time that wouldn’t slow traffic.
Police Cpt. Mark Waltz, asked to comment on the safety of the proposed flag stops, said three of them would be fine if the bus picks up riders at the stop signs, as proposed, and not before them.
He said he was least comfortable with the proposed flag stop at Green and Federal streets.
“We’re better off keeping them at stop signs,” Waltz said during the meeting. “If it’s able-bodied passengers, we can get one to two in 30 seconds. If you have four, five, six people, it would be a lot longer.”
One of the stipulations for the flag stops, Karker said, was that they would be for ambulatory riders only, so the bus would not be able to pick up riders there in wheelchairs or who are handicapped.
“So if someone is non-ambulatory, you’re just going to say no to them,” Chairwoman Joanne King said to Karker.
“We’re going to make it very clear that the stops are for ambulatory riders only,” Karker replied.
King later said that the restriction against non-ambulatory riders could lead to more negative feedback than positive.
While the council previously had agreed to vote on the proposed ordinance amendment at the Sept. 17 meeting, many councilors said they weren’t ready to vote then.
“I’m fascinated that it’s an ordinance amendment and these are all things that are quite ambiguous,” King said.
During the public hearing portion of the meeting, residents spoke about other bus service issues.
“I don’t like the service much at all, but what we need is another bus running another route because it takes 30 minutes to get from Hannaford to Cook’s Corner,” Melinda Gale said. “I just want to get from one place to the other. I have very little good to say about the bus besides that it exists.”
The comments led the council to table the flag stop proposal and push other ideas for expansion to the Master Plan Implementation Committee.
“What I wonder is if there’s some way for councilors to look at something that is a little more comprehensive,” Councilor Suzan Wilson said at the meeting. “This seems to me like being a lot of different things.”
The Brunswick Explorer drives past Brunswick Station, one of the closest stops to the downtown area. The Brunswick Town Council recently tabled a proposal to add four flag stops that would have allowed easier access in the area.