Integrated bus, train project favored for Portland-North corridor

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BRUNSWICK — Department of Transportation officials and their consultant recommended an almost $9 million integrated bus and passenger rail service Monday night for the Portland-North Transit Project.

The transportation study has been going on for more than three years and involved several phases. Initially, all options were on the table, regardless of cost, according to Jay Duncan, vice president of transportation planner AECOM Technology Corp. He said a partnership was formed with the Federal Transit Administration to allow use of a funding program grant called Small Starts.

Duncan said the study began before Amtrak announced intentions to extend its Downeaster train service to Freeport and Brunswick.

One option considered, but denied by the FTA, was use of road shoulders as an exclusive right-of-way for bus service during specific hours, Duncan said. Other cities, including Minneapolis/St. Paul; Columbus, Ohio; Miami; Ottawa, Canada and the states of Virginia and Maryland, allow bus travel on shoulders during peak traffic hours, he said.

Following the FTA denial of shoulder use for bus travel, options were narrowed to two final choices.

Duncan said the first choice included bus or Downeaster stops in Brunswick, Freeport, Yarmouth, Falmouth and Portland; while the second option removed the Falmouth stop. Both options would use one ticket per rider regardless of transportation type chosen, recommended minimal work to existing roadways, no shoulder travel for buses and 10 round-trip bus routes and three round trip Downeaster trips per day.

Duncan said the second option, which excludes Falmouth, would most likely have less ridership but would be less costly to establish: $8.6 million versus $9.8 million.

“The train and bus go very well together and have been successful,” Department of Transportation representative Sue Moreau said.

Next steps for the project include further meetings with the public to discuss possible bus stop locations. While stops are not an issue in Brunswick and Portland, Duncan said, discussions will need to take place with Freeport residents and officials as well as Department of Transportation officials regarding a planned Park and Ride lot near Exit 15 of Interstate 295 in Yarmouth.

Additional details regarding the number and cost of buses, fleet maintenance garage location and operations management are also up in the air, he said.

“The other key thing is how do you pay for it?” Duncan said, adding there are several funding options, including a Small Starts grant.

He said he expects the final report to be complete next month.

A handful of people attended the presentation and were offered the chance to ask questions. Brunswick Economic Development Director David Markovchick asked if it is possible to build in financial assistance for construction of a parking facility. 

“We want to make sure all the pieces of the service are in place so people could use it without restrictions,” Duncan said, adding property already owned by DOT could be considered an in-kind contribution.

Freeport Economic Development Corp. Director Sande Updegraph asked about scheduled times for bus arrivals and departures. The times are flexible based on ridership and research, Duncan said. David Nelson of Jacobs Transit Planning said there are existing estimates for travel time between Freeport and Brunswick.

“I don’t anticipate we’ll have any problems,” he said.

Duncan said until an exact location is determined for a bus stop in Freeport, schedule details and time frames can’t be narrowed down.

Councilor Margo Knight, in whose district the Brunswick train and bus stops are located, asked about upgrading an existing gravel parking lot near the anticipated bus stop.

“It would be paved, with sidewalks and things like that,” Duncan said. “Nicer than what’s there now.”

He said combined bus and Downeaster ridership will determine the number of parking spaces.

Knight recommended the bus avoid using Pleasant Street in the summer months due to increased traffic. Duncan said community meetings should bring to light similar issues with each of the four communities before the final bus routes and station locations are determined. 

Brunswick resident Richard Nemrow asked why Bath was not included in the recommended plan. Duncan said the study showed most people from Bath do not travel south to Portland.

“The cost of providing additional service wasn’t comparable to the number of people,” he said. “If we start the service up and find a huge demand, we can change it and add stops.”

Moreau said she does not expect bus service to be active before completion of the Downeaster railway extension.

Stephanie Grinnell can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or sgrinnell@theforecaster.net.

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