We all get excited about presidential elections, but local government is where the action is. As I have written in this space before, the members of the Bangor City Council have more immediate impact on my life than the occupant of the Oval Office.
Case in point: While the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (better known as the Obama stimulus package) provided funds for a few new Community Connector buses, only the Bangor City Council can extend the operating hours.
And after last Wednesday’s budget workshop at City Hall, this council seems to be committed to getting it done. The meeting brought out a crowd of bus supporters. They heard a majority of the council approve the idea – if not yet the funding – of later evening hours.
I left the meeting filled with cautious optimism. All seven of the nine councilors present expressed support for later bus hours. It’s going to happen. As councilor Nelson Durgin said, “We’ve reached a point where we can’t go back. Let’s put our heads together and work on this.”
I also gained a sense of appreciation for the work involved in getting even modest proposals enacted. Bus supporters, including me, have been lobbying for later hours for some time. The group Transportation For All brought a dozen or more people to the meeting, and handed the council a petition signed by local residents.
But as councilor Gibran Graham reminded us, agitating is the easy part. There’s more to consider beyond the obvious need for more money to pay more drivers for more hours. For instance, the buses that run all day are currently serviced between 7 and 11 at night. Pushing the hours back two hours also pushes back the service time. Extra hours means keeping the downtown bus depot open longer, and more hours for dispatchers, and so on. Someone has to clean the buses on a regular basis. The fleet itself is aging.
Still, the will to do it is there. A real city should have a real public transportation system, and the members of this council seem to be on board. A viable bus system running in the evening, as council chair Sean Faircloth pointed out, helps stimulate the local economy. “There’s a business value to getting folks downtown at night,” he said. Councilor Joe Baldacci said longer bus hours will make Bangor more attractive to people contemplating a move here.
The cost to extend all routes in the system by two hours – until 9 p.m. – is an estimated $203,492. Finance director Deb Cyr said that money is not yet in the budget. But some of it could be recouped from savings in fuel costs. The Community Connector locks in its fuel prices a year in advance, and prices are substantially lower than last year.
But councilors also urged patience. “We need to commit to a plan,” Baldacci said. That plan would include less expensive but equally necessary things like a larger and better Community Connector office, and improvements to the waiting area downtown. Councilor Ben Sprague noted that the council has heard from many groups about the need for downtown public restrooms, not just at the bus station.
Sprague and Baldacci both floated the possibility of trial runs, over a few routes for a limited time. This makes a certain amount of sense. As a regular bus passenger, I can tell you that some routes are more heavily used than others, and at different times of the day. But I would also caution the council not to pull the plug too quickly if the new hours don’t immediately entice large numbers of new riders.
It’s hard to take something away from the public – though that didn’t stop the city from prematurely killing the Odlin Road route, nor did it stop Hampden’s town council from sacrificing the Saturday bus to its petty spat with Bangor. If it takes the time it needs to establish a comprehensive plan for expanding the bus hours, then the council should also commit to the plan, long-term, once it’s implemented.
It’s even harder to influence changes in personal habits. We live in a society where every incentive is to drive. Persuading a significant percentage of the population out of their cars is long, hard work, but it’s worth doing right, and it’s worth paying for. The reward: more attractive pedestrian-friendly communities, a robust economy in which everyone isn’t driving to work to make the car payment, and a healthy natural environment.
The Community Connector hours are going to be extended. Not right away, maybe not even this year, but soon. Like most lasting changes, it’s happening incrementally. Public transportation is the future, and the future starts now.