Putting rural bus on awareness map

By Dawn De Busk

Staff Writer

NAPLES — What do these people have in common?

A stockbroker who owns an electric vehicle and commutes to his job; a city-dwelling cycling enthusiast who yearns for varied scenery and hills as challenging as Quaker’s Ridge; a group of elderly ladies who have a zest for live theater and lively dinner conversation; and a dad who is in charge of birthday plans for his 9-year-old daughter and her friends.

All of them have climbed aboard the Lakes Region Explorer, the 18-passenger bus that serves the towns along the Route 302 corridor, with weekday stops between Bridgton and Portland.

While the bus might be a regular sight for many in the neighboring towns, there are still people who are unaware of its existence. Others do not know the service is for the general public.

“Despite all the advertising, and you’ve made a great effort, when this went to Casco Finance Committee last year, four out of five people had never heard of it,” according to Casco Town Manager Dave Morton.

People react with genuine interest and excitement — when they do hear about it, he said.

That is not an uncommon conundrum.

“That is always the case with a rural bus service because it’s not been here before,” said Selena Barlow, with Transit Marketing, market research and planning.

On March 8, staff from the agency that operates the rural bus service, Regional Transportation Program (RTP) joined representatives from the Greater Portland Council of Governments (GPCOG) and Opportunity of Alliance to put a spotlight on the relatively new bus service. During the hour-and-a-half meeting, members of the community were invited to partake in a conversation of how to raise awareness and thus ridership. Barlow facilitated the brainstorming session as area leaders brought creative ideas to the table.

The assignment: With little advertising dollars, what are some effective ways to put the existing bus service on the awareness map?

Morton suggested reaching out directly to summer camps because camp counselors have a day off during the week, and the bus would provide an opportunity to get around the region.

Grabbing the attention of an increased summer population was also addressed. There are summer visitors who arrive via plane or train so information about the Lakes Region Explorer can be placed at those sites.

The Sebago Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Aimee Senatore shared ideas for promoting the Explorer in conjunction with longtime events like the Maine Blues Festival and the Maine Lakes Brew Fest.

One step to success is getting the business community to buy into the concept that the Explorer is for anyone — not just people who do not have reliable transportation, she said.

“People don’t expect it to exist. These maps are great. But, the bus has to tell a story of why it is there and who it is for,” Senatoree said.

Senatoree recommended Facebook as one social media source to get the word out. YouTube videos were mentioned as another popular way to reach a greater number of people.

Morton said that print media such as flyers and brochures lack the impact that a well-crafted video can have.

Raymond Town Manager Don Willard suggested doing a promotional video.

“My son likes to go to the record store at the Old Port. So many people in my town (ride the bus) because they think it is the right thing to do. They do it for the environment,” Willard said.

A promotional video would focus on “celebrating the success and showing the growth” of the Explorer’s ridership, he said.

It is understood that public transportation is not a money-maker, RTP Executive Director Jack DeBerandinis said.

However, the benefits of the service outweigh the costs of having a public transportation in Maine’s rural communities, he said.

“Right now, you have a public bus that goes to Portland from Bridgton;” and it is important that the service continues to exist, he said.

DeBerandinis had a positive prediction for the Explorer. “We had 20 percent increase in ridership.I anticipate in the current calendar year, we should move up another 20 percent,” he said.

Barlow, who acted as the facilitor for the workshop said there are as many as 13 people on the bus during its first early morning journey from Bridgton to Portland.

If anyone has ideas for promoting the Lakes Region Explorer, they can contact GPCOG Land Use and Transportation Planner Rick Harbison via email rharbison@GPCOG.org People may call the GPCOG office, 774-9891 or toll-free, 1-800-649-1304.

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