SCARBOROUGH — For the first time, the town will contribute to a regional bus system that makes stops along Route 1 every day.
Scarborough is bordered to the north and south by towns with public transit systems, but has no such transportation ecology of its own.
The $25,000 contribution approved Wednesday represents a good-faith gesture to Shuttlebus-Zoom, an inter-municipal transit agency of Biddeford, Saco and Old Orchard Beach. Shuttlebus-Zoom’s intercity route makes several stops daily in Scarborough.
To become a full member of the transit agency, with a vote on its board, Scarborough would have to contribute $115,000 per year. Town Manager Tom Hall originally proposed $75,000, but the Finance Committee trimmed that figure in a round of budget cuts.
Still, Hall said this first-ever payment is a crucial step. Contributing to public transportation has been on the town’s agenda for years, he said, but this is the first time it has survived budget cuts.
“It won’t get us much, frankly, but it’s an important gesture that Scarborough has an important role to play,” he said. “We have an obligation to be part of the solution.”
The Shuttlebus stops at Pine Point, Dunstan Corner, Oak Hill Plaza and the Maine Medical Campus near the Interstate 295 connector. None of those stops have bus shelters; passengers must stand along the road and hail the bus as it comes by.
In March, there were more than 2,600 riders on the route. A ticket for trips beginning or ending in Scarborough costs $3. In the summer, Shuttlebus-Zoom also operates a trolley between Bayley’s Campground and Old Orchard Beach.
No one would be happier to see Scarborough become a full member of the Shuttlebus-Zoom than Al Schutz, the transit agency’s executive director.
“The only way to get ahead is to work together,” he said. “I’d like to see the relationship strengthened. I’d like to see them next year look at becoming a full partner.”
While Scarborough has never contributed to the system financially, Schutz said, Shuttlebus-Zoom has never considered discontinuing service to the town. There are people who rely on the bus to get around, he said, and it wouldn’t be right to punish them.
Still, he’d like to see more of a commitment from Scarborough.
“We pick up quite a few people in Scarborough,” he said. “I don’t think the transportation need is going to decrease any time in the future. I think it’s only going to get more challenging.”
Councilor Carol Rancourt, a public transportation proponent, said the $25,000 is a good start, but she’d like to see Scarborough push harder to expand public transportation, including eventual full membership in Shuttlebus-Zoom.
She said the town could serve as an important link between that system and the South Portland Bus, which makes one stop in Scarborough (at Walmart) and links with the Portland METRO system.
“In Scarborough, because we’re kind of in the middle of these two transportation systems, this is one place we could regionalize, and play a big role in that way,” Rancourt said.
One of the largest factors behind Scarborough’s need for public transportation is its growing population of senior citizens, who often rely on transportation services to run errands and get to appointments.
According to 2010 Census data, about 24 percent of Scarborough residents are 60 or older, up from 17 percent in 2000.
Rancourt, who works for the Southern Maine Agency on Aging, said the trend will continue.
“This is just the beginning of the wave of Boomers,” she said. “That’s going to increase sizeably.”
It’s hard to exactly measure the aging population’s demand for public transportation. Neither Shuttlebus-Zoom, nor the town, nor Southern Maine Agency on Aging keep data that indicate need. Still, people seem to accept as fact that there is a need.
“Affordable and reliable transportation options for older adults in rural areas of southern Maine are scarce,” Katlyn Blackston, director of community services for Southern Maine Agency on Aging, said in an email.
“Older adults who cannot afford to pay for the service and who do not qualify under MaineCare guidelines for publicly funded programs must rely on the support and assistance of either family or informal caregivers,” she said. “The best transportation options are costly and out of reach for the average senior to use on a regular basis.”
The town recognizes the growing need.
Each year, the Town Council identifies improved transportation as one of the town’s crucial goals. The Oak Hill Pedestrian Master Plan calls for public transportation infrastructure, including bus shelters.
Hall said he envisions a future where buses provide transportation along Scarborough’s major traffic routes. Route 1 is the first priority, he said, but ultimately access should include Payne, Gorham, Black Point and Pine Point roads, he said.
The town’s Comprehensive Plan calls for increased residential density and infill, rather than encouraging development in more rural areas. The idea is that as a critical population density is reached, things like public transportation become more viable.
The first step, though, is joining Shuttlebus Zoom; it’s just a question of how soon that could happen. Councilor Judith Roy, who chaired the Finance Committee that cut Hall’s proposal by two thirds, said it could happen within the next five years or so.
Roy and Rancourt both talked about the 1970s, when Portland’s bus service made several trips through Scarborough every day. It’s only a matter of time before that level of service comes back, Roy said.
It all depends on when the town can spare the money.