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Freeport council casts doubt on commuter bus plan

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Freeport council casts doubt on commuter bus plan

FREEPORT — Start-up of a proposed METRO commuter bus route to Portland faces an uphill climb after the Town Council on Tuesday postponed a decision on whether to support the service.

With two councilors absent, at least two already opposed to the project, and others desiring more public input, the council decided to wait until its Sept. 16 meeting to vote on the proposal.

According to METRO General Manager Greg Jordan, the delay could push back the expected launch date of mid-2015 to late summer or fall 2015.

If the council votes not to have Freeport join the service, Jordan said that would "kill the project."

"If one community wants to pull out for any reason, it'd be hard to imagine continuing forward," he said.

The service, proposed at a June meeting in Freeport, would be a morning and evening commuter run with stops in Portland, Falmouth, Cumberland, Yarmouth and Freeport. The Greater Portland Transit District is seeking approval from the towns to run a three-year pilot program of the service.

Portland and Falmouth are already part of METRO and Yarmouth agreed to join last month. Cumberland is scheduled to vote next week.

Becoming part of the service would require Freeport to pay around $80,000 over the course of the pilot program.

If METRO gets approval from Freeport and Cumberland, it will then move forward in seeking funding for the project. In June, METRO said it is seeking $675,000-$700,000 in federal grants for the service.

Jordan said Freeport's decision to wait until September for a vote shouldn't put METRO off schedule for seeking funding.

"I don't think it will affect the process adversely," Jordan said.

Although Councilors Kristina Egan and Melanie Sachs both said they are in favor of the service, other councilors wanted more information. Chairman Jim Hendricks said he wanted to wait until all members of council were present, so there could be a more accurate vote.

Councilor Rich DeGrandpre said he opposes the service. Councilors Andy Wellen and Scott Gleeson were absent. Hendricks said he was unsure of what Wellen thought of the service. Gleeson submitted a letter stating his reasons for not wanting to join METRO.

"Please identify whether we have a need for METRO or whether METRO has a need for us," he said in the letter.

Gleeson said Freeport already has the Amtrak Downeaster train service and doesn't need a bus service as well. Egan countered by saying the services would complement each other and that having both would increase use of public transportation.

As a commuter-based service, the bus would run only on weekdays, via Interstate 295 and U.S. Route 1, with stops every 30 minutes between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. and 3:30-6:30 p.m.

Although several people attending the meeting said they would like to have the bus service, their reasons weren't because they intend to commute. Some older residents said it would help them get to Portland because they don't feel comfortable driving in the city.

Councilors pointed out it wouldn't make sense for people going to Portland for an appointment or for only a few hours, because they would have to wait the entire day for an evening bus to get back home.

DeGrandpre said the bus schedule may not work for commuters either, especially if they're coming to Freeport for work. He said many of the businesses in town are restaurants and retail shops with business hours that wouldn't coordinate with the bus schedule.

Councilor Sarah Tracy, along with most of the other councilors, said she wants to hear more input from the public before making a decision. She said she also wants more information from METRO on the demographics it will be targeting. She said that she feels uncomfortable agreeing to the expenditure without knowing more about how residents feel.

Councilors said they hope more residents will attend the Sept. 16 meeting.

METRO's next stop will be Cumberland's council meeting on Aug. 11, before coming back to Freeport.

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