FREEPORT — The Town Council narrowly agreed Tuesday to explore the extension of the Brunswick Explorer bus service to Freeport.
After a 4-3 vote, and with questions raised about the bus service’s viability and necessity, Freeport will join Bath and Topsham and spend $5,000 from its Traffic and Parking Reserve Fund to study extending the service.
Councilors Sara Gideon, Kristina Egan and Rich DeGrandpre voted against participating in the study.
The Brunswick Explorer is a bus service that runs from Cook’s Corner through downtown Brunswick to McKeen Street. It has been in service for a year, and Town Planner Donna Larson said it has been “somewhat successful.”
Freeport’s $5,000 will be added to the $15,000 contributed by Topsham and Bath.
Larson said the bus service will provide transportation for employees and shoppers coming from and going to Brunswick. She said the the study will look at the number of riders, frequency of trips, proposed route, and cost of providing the service. It is being conducted by the Midcoast Economic Development District and should be completed next spring.
Although Gideon asked if the bus service will be viable after passenger train service is in place next fall, Larson said she sees the bus and the train as “two separate services serving two separate clienteles.”
“There certainly could be some overlap between the two, and that is something we would certainly have to look at,” Larson said.
The cost of riding the train would be more expensive than a $1 bus ride, she noted.
Egan said she doubts the bus will encourage many people to leave their cars home as they run errands around town.
“It’s not that I don’t support looking at it, but it’s very difficult to shift people out of their cars with limited schedules,” she said.
DeGrandpre noted the ongoing debate over Metro’s Falmouth Flyer bus service, which Falmouth recently extended for another year, and said the Freeport bus would have to be convenient if residents are to use it.
“It’s not so much that we are in love with our cars, it’s that the bus doesn’t come to my house,” he said. “If I have to drive a mile and a half or two miles to park my car and ride the bus, and it doesn’t take me to the door of my work (and) I have to walk a ways to get there, it’s taking the convenience away from it.”
According to information released in September by Lee Kraker, executive director of Coastal Trans, the Rockland company that operates the Explorer, in its first year the service provided 17,513 rides. Riders used the bus to get to work, to medical appointments and to shop; it’s most popular destinations were the Hannaford supermarket on Elm Street in downtown Brunswick and Walmart on Bath Road.
Use of the bus service increased throughout the year, and the hours were extended from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
With the Amtrak Downeaster scheduled to begin service next fall, the council also voted unanimously to accept a sublease between the town and the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority for a train platform and to accept a municipal station agreement between Freeport, NNEPRA and Amtrak.
Town attorney Peter Van Hemel said the sublease is a uniform agreement for all train platforms, with variations based on ownership. Some are less formal than others, but all have a relationship with NNEPRA and Amtrak, he said.
In other business, the council agreed to spend $3,000 from the Village Open Space fund to create a seasonal ice skating rink on Depot Street near Freeport Community Services, in what is now a parking area for Linda Bean’s Maine Kitchen and Topside Tavern at 88 Main St.
The council agreed to give the businesses 25 parking credits from Dec. 1 through March 31, while the rink is in operation.
Larson agreed that lighting improvements and a management plan may be needed for the skating rink. The town will be responsible to set up, take down and maintain the rink during the winter.
Councilors accepted donations for the skating rink from the Rotary Club, Nordica Theatre, and Freeport Fire & Rescue Association, and construction materials from Warren Construction and Zachau Construction.
The council also set a public hearing for Dec. 20 to discuss a proposal for Habitat of Humanity to purchase town-owned property on West Street.
The proposal is to build eight housing units in four, duplex structures. Habitat would have to build a road, and bring water, electricity and sewer to the site.