Falmouth Flyer bus gets another year; train whistle quiet zones move forward

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FALMOUTH — After a lengthy public hearing Monday night, the Town Council decided the Falmouth Flyer bus is here for at least another year.

The town had until Jan. 1 to let the Greater Portland Transit District, or Metro, know if it intended to discontinue the Flyer. The council voted 5-2 to maintain the bus service, with Councilors Tony Payne and Fred Chase opposed.

Approximately 60 people turned out for two public hearings Monday night. The first was on whether the town should sever its relationship with Metro, which runs several bus routes between Portland and Falmouth. The second was to see if there is interest in pursuing train whistle quiet zones along the Amtrak Downeaster line.

The Flyer has been a frequent target. The council considered eliminating the bus service during budget discussions in March 2010; a similar proposal was brought up late last year, but scrapped before it came to a vote.

Speakers on Monday were overwhelmingly in support of the bus; only four people spoke against it. Many of  those in favor were retirees who live at OceanView, who said the small bus the community maintains for its residents – which brought them all to the meeting – does not provide the same service as the Falmouth Flyer.

“Our bus is not available for us to go downtown whenever we’d like to do it,” Connie Dayton said. “It does not take us to doctor’s appointments. Well, it does do that, but it’s extremely expensive. (Without the Flyer) people like us, who don’t have a bus, will be trapped.”

OceanView bus driver Jim Donnelly confirmed that the bus is not used for routine trips, but only for special events planned at least several weeks in advance.

While several OceanView residents discussed the fear of losing their independence, Recycling and Energy Advisory Committee Co-Chairman Jed Wright said his two children have gained independence using the Flyer.

“This is something we invest in for our community,” Wright said. “I don’t own a boat, but I value our harbor, our harbor master. I see that as a valuable part of our community.”

Others compared the bus cost to the tax dollars used to fund public education, even though not everyone in town utilizes the schools.

Portland City Councilor Ed Suslovic also spoke at the hearing, praising Falmouth’s two Metro board members, Town Manager Nathan Poore and Councilor Bonny Rodden, who is Metro’s vice president for their contribution to cost-saving measures for the bus system.

“I have watched the town of Falmouth wanting to become more sustainable. In my view, public transportation is a critical element of that,” Suslovic said.

A representative from Goodwill Industries spoke in favor of the service, citing the need to transport employees and clients to and from the Falmouth store.

Westbrook Town Councilor and Greater Portland Transit District President Michael Foley also praised the Falmouth Flyer as “such a true success story that we have other communities, like Gorham, considering adding the bus service.”

But not everyone was in favor of continuing the service.

“We’ve heard a lot of compelling stories about the usage of the bus, but we haven’t seen numbers about how many Falmouth residents use the bus,” Ledgewood Drive resident Rick Proctor said.

Metro provided the town with a 10-month ridership survey for the Flyer, which showed approximately 65,000 rides so far this year. However, the numbers were not broken down to show how many were Falmouth residents.

Resident John Winslow said he would like to see the town reduce the number of trips the bus makes, and compromise by reducing the amount the town pays for the bus, but still maintain the service.

Although the council voted to stay in the Metro district, the debate is likely to come up again. Although some speakers asked the council to approve a five-year agreement it was clear that was not something that was going to happen.

“It’s a welcome dialog to have,” Councilor Chris Orestis said. “I will continue to be a supporter of the bus, but I welcome this dialog. It shows Falmouth in a very good light.”

Quiet zones

The town will also be moving forward with plans to “channelize” railroad crossings as a way to increase safety and maintain train whistle quiet zones from Blackstrap Road to the Cumberland town line.

Approximately 25 people stayed late into the evening Monday to show their support for the proposal to install median dividers that extend 100 feet on each side of the railroad crossings to prevent drivers from going around and crossing the tracks when the gates are down.

The work is expected to cost $127,000.

If the town makes the changes, it will qualify for a train whistle quiet zone. While train conductors will still be able to blow whistles if they see an obstruction or person on or near the tracks, they will not blow it routinely when crossing intersections.

The Amtrak Downeaster train service to Brunswick is expected to run up to six times per day along the route, in addition to the freight trains that already use the tracks. After the recent renovations made to the tracks, residents said Monday that the freight trains are moving much faster. The Downeaster is expected to travel at around 60 mph.

Inverness Road resident Bruce Perry, who lives near the Woodville Road crossing, told a story of a day he was almost struck by a train.

“I have two young kids, I was driving down Woodville Road, it was the middle of summer, my windows were down. You’d think I’d be able to hear the train whistle,” he said. “My kids were yelling, they’re 3 and 5 (years old), and I went through that Woodville stop there, and only then did I hear that horn blow. The engine was 50, maybe 100 feet away. I had time, but I scared myself, my kids. The whistle, in that sense, did nothing.”

Several other speakers called on the council to install the channelization measures to help keep inexperienced drivers safe as the trains ramp up speed through Falmouth.

All the councilors gave consent for the town staff to pursue the quiet zone. Poore said the town would submit the paperwork and won’t plan on actual construction until Amtrak’s plans to proceed up to Brunswick are confirmed.

“But these improvements would have to be made to keep a no-whistle zone (at Blackstrap and Falmouth roads),” he said.

An accident at the Blackstrap Road crossing last year eliminated the quiet zone, although it does not take effect until 2013. Channelization would reinstate that quiet zone.

“If you want to maintain a quiet zone, you have to do this anyway,” Poore said.

The council will vote on spending the money for the improvements at its Dec. 12 meeting.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.