Forecaster Forum: METRO bus service is worth Falmouth's investment

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The METRO regional bus service provides an important and efficient transportation choice for many in our community. Buses provide lower transportation costs to riders, including commuters for work, senior citizens, young people, tourists and others. Public transportation also improves the quality of life for everyone in greater Portland by reducing traffic congestion, lowering oil consumption and air and global warming pollution, and generating economic activity.

Unfortunately, some elected officials in Falmouth do not understand these benefits or the bigger transportation picture. A recent news story reports that Falmouth Town Councilors Tony Payne and Fred Chase want to cut and possibly terminate METRO service in Falmouth.

While I completely understand the budget challenges faced by the Town Council in the current economic downturn, I believe that it is unwise and short-sighted to target the No. 7 Falmouth Flyer bus just at a time when the service needs to be strengthened.

The $20,000 proposed cut would almost certainly eliminate the OceanView Retirement Community, Route 88 and Johnson Road portions of the route. This would significantly threaten the viability of the entire service along Route 1, because, of course, cutting the bus service would lower ridership, which would increase the chances that the bus would be terminated for lack of riders.

The truth is that the only way that bus public transportation in Falmouth can succeed in the long run is by supporting the current route, expanding it in the future and marketing it aggressively to Falmouth citizens.

Twenty-thousand dollars is a small amount in a $10 million non-school, municipal budget. The Town’s total contribution to METRO is approximately $100,000, or about 1 percent of the total budget. Given the importance of the service, it seems reasonable that the town could make up that money elsewhere.

The Flyer’s route was expanded to include Route 88, Johnson Road and OceanView just nine months ago, and it would be self-defeating to weaken the service just as it is showing results. According to METRO, Falmouth Flyer ridership has been rising steadily every year, increasing by 20 percent from 2006 to 2009, with nearly 74,000 boardings in 2009. It reportedly was the only one of eight bus routes that did not experience a decrease over the past six years.

Public transportation opponents in Falmouth cite a recent town survey, claiming that residents do not value the bus as a priority. But this survey was unfairly skewed against the bus by pitting it against open space acquisition, recycling, transfer station and emergency services. It didn’t allow residents to weigh in on any other budget cutting options, such as asking whether taxpayers should assume the costs for snow plowing in private developments.

By asking residents to prioritize only certain options, it’s not surprising that 35 percent want to eliminate the bus. Nevertheless, almost an equal number (32 percent) want to preserve the current level of service.

From a regional perspective, if Falmouth reduces its support for the bus it will weaken the larger METRO transportation system. The value of a regional transportation system lies in the sum of its parts, in connecting people with employment, schools, recreation, transportation, tourist and other destinations. In fact, part of the Falmouth bus funding comes from a federal program to provide job access, and numerous riders currently use the bus to commute to work, to and from Portland.

Town Council Chairwoman Cathy Breen had it right when she said it would be wrong to allow short-term budget constraints to cause the town to abandon its long-range commitment to a regional transportation system.

I encourage concerned Falmouth citizens to voice their support for the Flyer in several ways. First, please contact councilors and ask them to preserve the budget for the bus. Second, please join the Friends of the Falmouth Flyer Bus page on Facebook. Finally, and most importantly, join your neighbors by riding the bus each Friday morning for “Falmouth Flyer Fridays.” We board at 7:55 a.m. at Town Landing Market or at 8:05 a.m. at Shaw’s on Route 1.

Glen Brand is a Falmouth resident who rides the bus to work in Portland several times a week.