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Bus Service Returns to Northern Suburbs

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Portland-Falmouth bus hits the road

By TESS NACELEWICZ, Portland Press Herald Writer - Wednesday, June 2, 2004

Evelyn Greaves doesn't drive, so she usually relies on her daughter to take her out to the Wal-Mart on Route 1 in Falmouth. But on Tuesday, the 82-year-old Portland resident was experiencing a newfound sense of freedom as she prepared to board the Falmouth Flyer, the new public bus service between downtown Portland and Falmouth's village center.

"I've been dying to get out there myself," said Greaves, who planned to spend the afternoon shopping.

Metro began operating the new bus route Tuesday on a six-month trial basis. It is the first public bus along that route in more than two decades, and is significant in that it is an experiment in bringing mass transit back to the northern suburbs.

The Falmouth Town Council approved the service in April, after listening to pleas that came mostly from older residents and youngsters. Bus supporters said it would give those without cars mobility and independence, and bring shoppers and workers to Route 1 businesses.

But the service doesn't come free. The trial will cost Falmouth $40,000, with another $40,000 coming from matching federal dollars. Councilors said they plan to evaluate the service to determine whether it is a success before committing more money to make it permanent.

By mid-afternoon on Tuesday, Metro General Manager Peter Hefler said ridership on the Flyer was "very encouraging." With eight of the Falmouth Flyer's 13 daily trips completed, he said ridership was a little more than 100 - about 13 riders per trip. And that was despite cool, rainy weather that can discourage senior citizens and others from traveling.

Metro held free trial runs of the new service on three days in May. On May 14, a total of 100 people used the service; on May 21, 168 people rode the Flyer; and on May 28, 139 took the free ride.

Tuesday was the official launch of regular service for the Falmouth Flyer, otherwise known as bus No. 7. The fare is $1, but reduced rates are available for senior citizens, students and frequent riders.

The Flyer will make its 13 daily round-trips Monday through Saturday. The first bus leaves downtown Portland from a bus stop on Elm Street, across from the Portland Public Library, at 6:30 a.m. The last day bus leaves there at 5:30 p.m. A final, late evening bus leaves Portland at 10:30 p.m.

The round-trip takes an hour and has 20 stops that include Martin's Point Health Care, several stores along Route 1 and Oceanview at Falmouth, a retirement community.

Bob and Vi Jensen, senior citizens from Westbrook, said they rode the Flyer to Falmouth on Tuesday because "Wal-Mart is there." Bob Jensen and other riders said it is very difficult to get to the Wal-Mart in Scarborough by bus. On Tuesday, the couple took a bus to downtown Portland and visited the public library before stepping outside to catch the Flyer to Falmouth.

Michelle Brower, 29, of Portland and her children also were headed to Wal-Mart, with a friend from out of state. She said the Flyer made the trip very convenient.

Hefler said the Greater Portland Transit District, which formed in 1966, operated a bus from the heart of Portland to Yarmouth until 1978. And well before buses were invented, horse-drawn and then electric trolleys served Portland and surrounding communities.

He said that bus service to the suburbs ceased in the late 1970s because there were too few people and not enough development to maintain the service. But things have changed, with Falmouth's Route 1 commercial district now home to businesses like Wal-Mart, Staples and McDonald's, which have employees and customers who are possible users of the service.

Other possible riders are commuters to Portland who don't want to pay high monthly parking fees, high school students who want to take classes at the University of Southern Maine, and residents of retirement communities, like Oceanview, who want to enjoy a day or an evening in Portland.

Hefler said that if the Falmouth Flyer gets 1,200 to 1,500 riders a month, or about 18,000 per year, "I would call that a success."

However, he said the bus service will never pay for itself. "No mass transit operation in North America can cover its costs from what you and I put in the fare box," Hefler said. "That's also true in most of Europe."

But that's no reason not to have it, he said. "I have always viewed transit as a service no different from a police department or a library or parks and recreation or a fire department," Hefler said. "It's a service and the cities that embrace it and support it find it beneficial."

From Portland Press Herald

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