Survey: Lake Region bus ridership low, but will grow

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Officials representing the Lakes Region Bus came Tuesday to the Bridgton Selectmen, armed with some hard numbers about ridership that the board had been seeking.

It was primarily the lack of ridership numbers that led the board to recommend against funding for the Portland to Bridgton bus service. The service could begin as early as July if each of the towns of Bridgton, Naples, Casco, Raymond and Windham kick in $9,656 toward the service’s $139,000 annual operational costs.

From January 2014 to April 2015, there was an average of five Naples riders per day since the Portland to Naples route began service as a pilot project of the Regional Transportation Program, according to Planner Rick Harbison of the Greater Portland Council of Governments. He said the one rider per day figure cited in last week’s Bridgton News was incorrect.

RTP bus manager Corey Gagnon said the numbers fluctuated depending on the time of year. Of the other towns along the route, the average daily ridership Monday through Friday was two from Raymond, five from Windham, one from Westbrook and 12 from Portland. He said it was possible some riders travelled from Bridgton to catch the bus at its Naples stop at the American Legion on Route 11.

If funded, the bus would add the Bridgton Community Center to its route. Gagnon said other stops could be added along the route, such as Food City in Bridgton and the Naples and Raymond Shopping Centers. It’s just a matter of those establishments agreeing to serve as a pick-up and drop-off point, he said.

“There are many hot spots in the Naples and Windham areas that are commutable,” Harbison added. “Anyone in Bridgton can take the bus and benefit from the bus.”

In addition, RTP would like to add “request-only” stops, by which the driver would make a quick unscheduled stop along Route 302 if a rider requested it in advance.

“It’s a great way to add more convenience but not affect scheduling,” said Gagnon. The bus currently makes four round trips per day, stopping in Naples at 6:25 a.m., 8:45 a.m., 4:05 p.m. and 6:35 p.m. In Casco, the bus stops at Norm’s O Scale Trains, in Raymond at Sunset Variety, and in Windham at the Windham Mall.

Although Gagnon said he’s confident the service will be funded, he did say some adjustments would need to be made if any of the towns reject all or part of the requested funding.

“It will be a bit of a sticky-wicket. We’ll have to figure out another way around it” if the funding falls short, Gagnon said, such as fewer round trips or reduced stops. But he said RTP, GPCOG and Opportunity Alliance are all strongly in support of providing the service, and plan to be as flexible as possible, possibly pursuing additional grant funding to make it work.

He added that more marketing and “branding” efforts need to be made to spread the word about the bus’s availability. He feels confident the ridership numbers will grow as word gets around.

A recently completed survey that drew 451 responses showed a strong interest, for example, in providing weekend service, or special trips to attractions such as Shawnee Peak, Gagnon said.

“This (Lakes Region Bus) has been in the works for 12 or 13 years,” Harbison said. The survey showed that 78% of those responding supported public funding for the bus.

Bridgton voters will decide on the funding at town elections on Tuesday, June 9. The Naples Budget Committee has recommended against any funding, but voters will have the final say at their June Town Meeting. Casco supports the service and has included the funds in their budget. Raymond has recommended reduced funding, while Windham has included the funds in their budget.

Gagnon said RTP plans to work closely with the towns, meeting with town leaders at least on a quarterly basis, to provide progress updates and discuss any changes to the service.



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