Bus companies challenge METRO deal with University of Southern Maine

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PORTLAND — An alliance of private bus operators Tuesday slammed as “direct government competition” an agreement by the Greater Portland Transit District to shuttle University of Southern Maine students to Gorham.

An existing university contract with a private bus company to transport students between its Gorham and Portland campuses is about to expire. METRO and the university announced in August they had reached a deal to launch a new transportation service, to begin in August 2018.

In a press release Monday the alliance of private bus operators said the agreement requires “taxpayers to spend several million dollars on new buses and operational costs” and might not be necessary.

Members of the alliance include VIP Tour & Charter Bus Co., Northeast Charter & Tour, Cyr Bus lines, and Custom Coach & Limousine, which is operated by a Gorham property taxpayer who ferries students under contract with the university.

The bus operators Tuesday protested the Metro plan at a press conference in Portland. “We’ll start with a public awareness campaign,” alliance spokesman Mark Robinson said before the conference.

On their website, www.wisetransitme.org, the private bus operators call for the METRO deal with the university to be halted and replaced through a bid process. Gregg Isherwood, president of Custom Coach & Limousine, on Tuesday said the university and METRO made the agreement without involving private contractors.

Jason Briggs of VIP, a Portland company, said no one had the opportunity to bid.

The university’s agreement also allows public passengers to ride METRO student shuttles. But the bus alliance says a private bus company could have worked out a similar arrangement.

The alliance also says a private company could save taxpayers money. “You’re talking millions of dollars here,” Briggs said in the press conference.

Under the proposed agreement between Metro’s Transit West Project and the university, the so-called Husky Line, named for the university mascot, would run between the university’s Portland and Gorham campuses through Westbrook. The university’s nearly 8,000 students would receive unlimited free passes for the entire METRO system, while public riders would pay fares.

“The Transit West Project will expand public transit to a growing region that is experiencing significant housing, development and traffic pressure,” Greg Jordan, METRO general manager, said Tuesday in an email.

Benjamin Hartwell, chairman of the Gorham Town Council, said in a telephone interview Tuesday before the bus operators’ press conference that the university had planned to go with METRO with or without the town’s cooperation. Hartwell said he supported the plan because giving Gorham residents an opportunity for bus service didn’t seem to be an option with the current contract.

According to the university, the existing contract expires on Aug. 31, 2018, although it could have been renewed for another four years.

Hartwell also noted the METRO buses are outfitted with bicycle racks. “I think a METRO-style bus is better suited (to the route and its riders),” Hartwell said.

Besides the Gorham component, METRO’s plan also steps up service along Portland’s Brighton Avenue and adds another route through Westbrook from the Riverton and Prides Corner area to the Maine Mall in South Portland.

“The U-Pass program offers far greater mobility options than USM’s current inter-campus shuttle can provide,” Jordan said. “There are many U-Pass programs in place across the country and transit agencies routinely provide public transit services to college campuses, just as they do to other major destinations across regions,” Jordan said.

The cost of the METRO service for the university would run about $400,000 annually. Cost of the current shuttle service for this year with Custom Coach is $394,000, according to university spokesman Robert Stein.

He said the three-year program cost with Custom Coach would be about $1.19 million; METRO is expected to cost about $1.16 million to $1.39 million.

But Stein noted the current shuttle does not include Sunday and summer service, Wi-Fi or public access. He also said private companies will continue to be hired for the university’s athletic and other charter services.

METRO announced in August that projected start-up costs for its expanded service would be $4.5 million, with 80 percent funded by the Federal Transit Administration. Annual operational expenses would run about $1.7 million.

Jordan said this week that eight buses are needed for the METRO expansion. “These have been ordered, though final pricing is not set,” he said.

A METRO estimate a year ago had pegged the cost of buses at about $500,000 each.

The Gorham Town Council agreed last year to pay $35,000 annually for three years to participate in METRO’s bus service expansion. In a public hearing in October 2016, before the Gorham board’s decision to join the collaborative, Gregg Isherwood, president of Custom Coach & Limousine, aired several concerns with the METRO plan, including federal tax dollars backing a competitor.

Isherwood, who has 65 employees, said his company has about 40 buses and pays more than $80,000 in taxes that include excise taxes on buses. He said he wants to work with USM and Gorham, and he could open his service to the public “for millions less.”

Hartwell said the town would install one to three METRO bus stops for the public. Gorham joined the METRO plan under the three-year pilot program.

“We’re wary of what costs could blow up to,” Hartwell said Tuesday.

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

An alliance of private bus operators Tuesday protested the Greater Portland Transit District’s collaboration with the University of Southern Maine, Gorham, Portland and Westbrook to shuttle students while expanding public transit to Gorham. This METRO bus is shown this week in Westbrook.