YARMOUTH — Town councilors unanimously endorsed METRO express bus service to Portland, at an annual cost of up to $30,000.
The service, proposed at a June meeting in Freeport, would be a morning and evening commuter run with stops in Falmouth, Cumberland, Yarmouth and Freeport. The Greater Portland Transit District is seeking approval to run a three-year pilot program of the service beginning in July 2015.
Yarmouth is the first town to approve the plan. METRO is still waiting for decisions from Cumberland and Freeport. Portland and Falmouth are already METRO partners.
The Town Council’s decision to become part of the service will help METRO move forward in seeking funding for the project, if the other two towns also agree. In June, METRO said it is seeking $675,000-$700,000 in federal grants for the service.
“Tonight is really about giving us the green light,” METRO general manager Greg Jordan said at the council’s July 24 meeting.
Councilors passed a resolution endorsing the bus service and pledging the town will provide $80,000-$90,000 for the pilot program.
In June, Jordan said METRO is looking for $20,000-$40,000 annually from Yarmouth, Cumberland, and Freeport. For the pilot phase of the service, the annual operating costs would be $300,000.
Some councilors expressed concerns about the program before approving it. Councilor Pat Thompson had a question about the flexibility of the pilot program.
“How flexible will you be with the trial period to give it the best opportunity for success?” Thompson asked Jordan.
Thompson said she wanted to know if METRO would change things and try new ideas during the trial to explore different possibilities for the service. Jordan said METRO will be flexible, but won’t be quick to change things. He said the district wants to give the project time to succeed.
As a commuter-based service, the bus would run weekdays only, using 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.
Councilor Randall Bates asked Jordan how METRO plans to measure the success of the pilot program. Jordan replied that METRO would need ridership of 40,000 per year to move the program forward. In June, Jordan said the program is expected to produce annual fare revenue of $60,000-$70,000.
Town Manager Nat Tupper said it is ultimately up to each town involved in the program to determine if it would work as a permanent service. At the end of the pilot program, each town would have to decide if it wanted to continue with the bus service.
Tupper also asked what would happen to a town’s financial obligation if it decides to pull out of the program. Jordan said the obligation would not continue, as long as the town pulled out during the pilot program and not after it becomes a permanent service.
METRO will be using the money from each town, as well as from the federal funding, to buy vehicles and create bus stops. It plans to spend $20,000 to put up stops and $200,000 on each of four, 20-to-30-passenger highway-express buses it plans to purchase.
Jordan said he has high hopes for the program.
“I’m hoping this is going to be a success for all the towns,” he said.
Before seeking federal funding, METRO still needs approval from Freeport and Cumberland. Freeport’s Town Council is holding a public hearing Aug. 5, and Cumberland’s Town Council is scheduled to discuss the program Aug. 11.
“We’re looking forward to working with (Yarmouth) and the other towns to move this forward,” Jordan said.