Freeport gives green light to revised plan for METRO bus service

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FREEPORT — The Town Council on Tuesday accepted a revised plan proposed by the Greater Portland Transit District for bus service north of Portland.

Councilors agreed 6-0, with Councilor Andy Wellen abstaining, to sign onto a three-year METRO pilot program starting next year that will increase the frequency of buses to Yarmouth and Freeport, and not include service to Cumberland.

The new plan was constructed after Cumberland backed out and Freeport initially tabled a decision until a public hearing could be held.

“We’re very excited about Freeport’s decision to participate in the pilot program,” Greg Jordan, METRO general manager, said after the meeting. “I think we did a good job responding to Freeport’s needs.”

The original plan, presented at a Freeport meeting in June, was for a commuter-centric, rush-hour service with morning and evening buses serving Cumberland, Yarmouth, and Freeport. It would have been an extension of the existing bus route from Portland and Falmouth.

The revised plan is for weekday service from 7 a.m.-7 p.m., coinciding with the schedule of the Amtrak Downeaster passenger train. Jordan said the full schedule of the combined services would be 6 a.m.-8 p.m.

“We want the schedule, both train and bus, to work for residents,” Jordan said.

Under the new plan, bus riders would be charged a flat rate of $3. Without stops in Cumberland, the travel time to Portland will be 35 minutes, with more time on Interstate 295 and less on U.S. Route 1. Also, instead of the originally proposed four buses, this plan would only need three.

This plan would cost Freeport and Yarmouth $20,000 each for the first year of the pilot program, $30,000 for the second, and $40,000 for the third. If the towns agreed to make it a permanent route, the annual cost per town would be up to $60,000. Another $675,000-$700,000 in federal funding is also required.

Jordan said ridership is estimated to be the same as the previous plan, 30,000 annually. He said the expected average boarding per trip is six to eight riders. While Jordan said this may sound low, it is only an average.

“Eight boardings per trip is consistent with what we’re seeing with our peers,” he said.

Councilor Sarah Tracy asked if METRO would be able to keep track of where riders were getting on and off, to make sure they could tell if Freeport gets its money’s worth from the program. Jordan said they would.

“Yes, we’ll take steps to know which jurisdictions the boardings are coming from,” Jordan said.

Councilor Rich DeGrandpre said he wondered if METRO would be able to tell how many riders using the service would still make the trip by other means of transportation if the service didn’t exist. Jordan said METRO would use surveys to find that information.

Councilor Melanie Sachs said that throughout her years of working at the local food pantry, she has noticed how much people have talked about a desire for public transportation.

“The people and organizations have changed, but the No. 1 issue has remained the same: transportation,” Sachs said.

Sachs said she believes agreeing to METRO’s plan is a wise investment for the town.

“I can think of no better use of our tax dollars,” she said. “There is no other equalizer quite like transportation.”

Sachs said public transportation provides more opportunity for employment, access to health care, increased social interaction, and an increase in overall happiness.

Vice Chairwoman Kristina Egan agreed, saying everyone benefits from public transportation and that it would provide opportunity and choice for Freeport residents.

“This is a pilot program. There’s a risk, but it’s a low risk,” Egan said.

Other councilors agreed that the project is a good use of town money.

“I don’t know if it’ll work out, but it seems like a prudent investment at this time,” Tracy said.

A dozen members of the public spoke, and only two expressed opposition to the plan. Most said Freeport would benefit from the METRO service. 

After the meeting, Jordan said the next step is to apply for federal funding for the project.

“Until we get the green light on the funds, things can’t go anywhere,” Jordan said.

METRO also has to make sure Yarmouth is still on board. Jordan said it may not need to be discussed at a Town Council meeting, as long as the town manager agrees.

After that, Jordan said METRO will begin reaching out to the towns in late October or early November to market the project.

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

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I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.