Forecaster Forum: Benefits of Falmouth Flyer well worth the cost

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After seven years plying the Route 1 corridor, the Falmouth Flyer has proved the value of bus service that connects Falmouth to Portland, Westbrook and beyond.

Its benefits are multi-fold.

It is a vital tool for Falmouth’s economic development today and in the future, providing transportation for employees and customers traveling to local businesses that range from retail shops to medical offices.

Bus service was one of the key factors that prompted the University Of Maine trustees to invest in Tidewater Village, the new site of the University’s Learning Center on Clearwater Drive.

Other businesses, such as the developers of Tidewater and the retirement community of OceanView, consider bus service such an asset that they promote it in their marketing material.

With an annual ridership of 77,800 trips, the Flyer serves residents who commute, don’t have cars, or prefer to ride in a more ecologically friendly vehicle.

But now bus service is being threatened by a proposed order before the Falmouth Town Council that would require Falmouth to withdraw from the Greater Portland Transit District, known as Metro. If the order passes, bus service in Falmouth will end by Dec. 31, 2012.

Councilors will hear from the public at a hearing Monday, Nov. 28, at 7 p.m. The council will vote Dec. 12.

The bus will cost Falmouth an estimated $124,000 next year, less than the actual fee to Metro because the town receives a transit bonus from the state. This equates to less than 1 percent of the town’s annual budget.

At the last council meeting, Chairwoman Teresa Pierce, and Councilors Chris Orestis, Will Armitage and I stressed that the long-term economic benefits were well worth the cost.

As Armitage pointed out, the cost of bus service is more than covered by the property taxes paid on behalf of two major beneficiaries of the bus: Walmart and OceanView. Among the top 10 taxpayers in town, OceanView and Falmouth Plaza LLC, which owns Walmart’s building, paid the town more than $500,000 collectively in 2009, according to town records.

The mantra that “no one rides the bus” is a misconception. At the end of a run, buses sometimes have one or two riders, even though they may have been full earlier. This happens at West Falmouth Shopping Center, where the Route 6 bus turns around, and the OceanView and Town Landing loops on Route 7.

Actually, the ridership on the Route 7 bus, the primary bus route in Falmouth, is doing well. Since 2008, the ridership in the 10-month period from January to October has grown 10 percent, according to Metro figures. When the Federal Transit Administration evaluates much larger regional transit systems, such as those in Boston and New York, an increase of 10 percent in four years would be considered the sign of a successful and healthy transit service.

The Falmouth Flyer has even increased its ridership in years when the Metro district as a whole did not.

When we consider the future of the bus, it’s important to recognize the debate isn’t just about numbers, but about the commitment Falmouth has made to be part of a regional transportation network that benefits greater Portland. During economic times like these, our communities need to pool our resources, not pull back into shells of isolated self-interest.

This debate also has a human face: the riders who I see when I ride the bus – those who rely on the bus for their livelihood, their peace of mind and their quality of life.

Employees at McDonald’s, Walmart, Dunkin’ Donuts and Goodwill, who need the bus to get to work;

Seniors who need to shop, but don’t feel comfortable driving a car anymore.

Commuters who prefer a leisurely ride on a bus to steering a sliding car on ice and paying for parking.

The Falmouth woman on dialysis who is able to escape her home to see the wildflowers at Maine Audubon, visit friends and watch the cruise ships in Casco Bay.

The bus service clearly has its limitations, particularly the one-hour service and the split hours between OceanView and Town Landing, which contributes to the dearth of riders in those neighborhoods. However, the solution, as Pierce said, is to improve service, not do away with the bus.

Bonny Rodden is a Falmouth town councilor and vice president of the board of the Greater Portland Transit District.