Harpswell bus ridership low, service may shut down in winter

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HARPSWELL — Ridership is low as the town’s first public transportation system heads towards its six-month mark.

As a result, the service may be discontinued during winter.

From the last week of May through the second week of October, only 41 people rode the bus connecting Harpswell Neck to Cook’s Corner and Maine Street Station in Brunswick, according to ridership data from service provider Coastal Trans.

Twenty-one people rode the bus connecting Cundy’s Harbor to Brunswick in the same time period.

The two buses run on Wednesdays, and make three runs between Harpswell and Brunswick each day. There is no charge for the service.

Ridership numbers show that some weeks saw no riders; for two consecutive Wednesdays in June, for example, nobody rode either bus.

Harpswell signed a contract with Coastal Trans, a Rockland-based nonprofit, for the transportation service in May. The company also operates the Brunswick Explorer bus service.

Coastal Trans draws state and federal funding for its operations, but requires a 40 percent local match.

The town appropriated $9,000 for the match at town meeting in March, which is to be paid in two six-month installments.

The funds are a prepayment for the service; actual costs will be tracked and any unused funds will be reimbursed to the town, according to the contract.

In an interview Wednesday, Selectman Elinor Multer said she was not surprised by the initial ridership.

“I always felt that it would be small, and that it would take more than a year to build up anything. … These kinds of things just take a lot of time,” she said. “People are not used to it, many may still never have heard of it.”

Multer said she wants to see how the service performs in the spring, when the weather warms up again.

There is a question, though, of whether the bus routes should be continued in the winter months.

Multer said she is concerned that continuing service through the winter might “waste money.”

“And it is a significant amount of money,” she added.

On the other hand, discontinuing the fledgling service, if only temporarily, may set it back in terms of public recognition.

“I’m not anxious to abandon (the service entirely),” she said. “But the question of whether to run it during the winter is a tougher one.”

Selectman Kevin Johnson on Wednesday said he thinks the Board of Selectmen may shut service down for the winter.

“If ridership is down this fall, there’s no sense keep it going through the winter,” Johnson said.

But, like Multer, he supports continuing the schedule next spring and summer.

“When we signed onto this, we kind of made a commitment to give it a year or two, and not just fold up the tent … if it didn’t work out well,” Johnson said.

Selectmen are scheduled to discuss the public transportation service at their Thursday, Oct. 29, meeting.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or wwuthmann@theforecaster.net. Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Coastal Trans, a Rockland-based nonprofit, has been providing once-a-week public transportation in Harpswell since May.

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Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.