Vote on bus service has implications for Falmouth, Portland
FALMOUTH — The future of METRO bus service between Portland and Falmouth depends on an Election Day referendum in Falmouth.
The No. 7 bus line, commonly known as the Falmouth Flyer, began service in 2004. It has been an almost constant source of debate ever since, and has survived two votes by the Town Council on whether to end service.
Question 1 on the town ballot asks residents, "Shall the ordinance entitled 'Ordinances requiring the Falmouth Town Council to withdraw from the METRO services contract effective Dec. 31, 2013' be adopted."
If approved, the resulting ordinance would discontinue bus service at the end of next year. The town will stop all financial interaction with METRO, except to repay remaining debt.
Proponents say the bus is vital to the Falmouth community because it is a more sustainable alternative to driving, helps the elderly access the town's many businesses, and brings people to and from Falmouth for work.
Opponents say Falmouth's population cannot support or afford the bus and that it is a waste of taxpayer money.
This year, bus service will cost the town nearly $115,000, after a subsidy from the state's Transit Bonus Program. In 2011, nearly 79,000 rider trips were recorded on the Falmouth Flyer, according to the Greater Portland Transit District. The cost per rider to the town is about $1.50 a person, the cost of a one-way trip.
Falmouth resident Michael Doyle, who led the referendum drive, said he does not oppose the service itself as long as people make use of it on a regular basis, but he opposes the Town Council "making the rest of us pay for the bus without giving voters a chance to vote on it.”
He said the decision to keep the bus service has been made by a handful of people, when it should have been made by the entire town.
Lisa Agnew, spokeswoman for the Friends of the Falmouth Flyer, said there is a lot of support for maintaining the bus service because many people use it to get to and from work, or just around town.
She said that a survey of town businesses showed that at least 19 different businesses have employees who use the bus regularly.
At a Sept. 10 public hearing on the bus service, Mike Skillin co-owner of Skillins' Greenhouse and member of the Falmouth Economic Development Commission, said bus service to Falmouth is essential to his business.
"At any one time several of our staff absolutely needs the METRO to travel from Portland into Falmouth," he said. "These are important people to our staff and we can't turn our back on them."
In addition to receiving support from local businesses like OceanView and Goodwill, the bus service has the support of both candidates in the House District 112 race: incumbent state Rep. Mary Nelson, D-Falmouth, and challenger John Logan Jones, R-Falmouth.
"When I was first elected to the Legislature four years ago, the first piece of legislation I submitted and sponsored was to make Falmouth a member of METRO," Nelson said at the public hearing. "The bus in Falmouth provides public transportation, which is a benefit and a very affordable benefit for the citizens of Falmouth."
Jones, although he supports the service itself, said there is a better way to fund the bus, suggesting higher fares rather than a line item in the town's budget.
"I’m for buses," he said, "but I’m not for things costing taxpayers any more money."
On a recent bus ride, Two Falmouth residents who ride the No. 7 into Portland on a daily basis, Merrill Barter and Lauren Silverson, said they don't know how they would get to and from their jobs without the bus.
Barter, who is legally blind, said he and his family moved to Falmouth because of the easy access to bus transportation in and out of Falmouth.
One major issue with the bus raised by opposition is that the bus drives around empty during many of its runs. Both Barter and Silverson said that the number of people on the bus does vary by day and trip, but there are usually at least 10 people on the morning ride into Portland.
“It does depend (on the day),” Barter said. “Often times there are a lot of people coming from Portland early in the morning. Typically when I get on at 4:30, 5:30 or 6:30 (p.m.) it's really busy with people returning to Falmouth.”
Silverson said that the daily bus crowd has formed “quite the sense of community” over the past several years.
Removal of bus service would not only effect Falmouth residents, because the No. 7 line will be eliminated if the referendum passes. That would mean no more stops on Veranda Street in Portland.
“We wouldn't have a bus line,” said Steve Kirby, senior director of finance, systems and new technology at METRO.
Kirby said that if the No. 7 bus is discontinued, people living on Veranda Street would have to use the No. 6 bus on Washington Avenue, which runs on a different schedule than the Falmouth Flyer.
That option does not work for Portland-resident James O'Brien, who starts his commute to J.P. Thornton's in South Portland on the No. 7 bus. He said that because the No. 6 bus comes 15 minutes later than the No. 7, he would miss his connecting buses into South Portland.
The Nov. 6 referendum is the first time in the eight-year history of the service that Falmouth voters will have the chance to decide the fate of the bus and the town's METRO membership.
Doyle said the vote is overdue, but if voters back the service, and vote no on Falmouth Question 1, he will live with the decision.
“I wouldn't be OK with the waste of money," he said, "but I would be OK with the majority approving the waste of the money."