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A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time.

Public transit in rural Maine is sparse. Improving it could help the state fight climate change

Zachary Morin.jpg
Charlie Eichacker
Maine Public
Zachary Morin, 30, rides the Green Line commuter bus from Rumford to Lewiston by way of Livermore on Dec. 8, 2021.

I was already three hours late for work when I reached downtown Lewiston one morning earlier this month.

It had taken three commuter buses to get me this far, from my town in the mountains of western Maine to the state’s second-biggest city. Now it was starting to snow as I jumped on the fourth and last leg of my trip: the Lisbon Street line of the Citylink bus service.

This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."

Deep Dive Climate Driven

With assurances from the driver that I had chosen the correct route, I paid $1.50 in fare and spent the next 30 minutes watching stores, restaurants and a VA clinic pass by before my office came into view.

“You made it!” a colleague remarked as I finally arrived at my desk. Indeed I had — and my long commute had been revealing.

I normally make my once-a-week trip to Lewiston from my home in Bethel by car, which takes an hour each way. By contrast, my bus tour of western Maine took more than three times as long, and I was now three hours and forty minutes late for work. It would not be a productive day, since I’d only have a couple hours at my desk before hitting the road again, to ensure I could catch the last bus home.

The cost of my roundtrip bus commute would reach $13.

But I’d succeeded in one important way: by leaving my car close to home and taking the buses to work that day, I’d managed to burn just a small fraction of the gas that I normally would on that drive.

Building a rural bus network

Just a few years ago, I would have had no hope of getting from my home in rural Oxford County to my Lewiston office without using a car. But an organization called Western Maine Transportation has slowly been building a network of small commuter buses that crisscross Oxford, Franklin and Androscoggin counties.

It has started a Green Line that makes four round-trips between Lewiston and Farmington on weekdays, a connecting line between Livermore and Rumford, and two seasonal routes shuttling workers from nearby communities to the Sugarloaf and Sunday River ski resorts.

More recently, it began running a Blue Line between Lewiston-Auburn and the coastal city of Bath — which was designed to transport workers to their jobs at a baked goods manufacturer in the Midcoast, but like all of the group’s routes, is open to the public.

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Charlie Eichacker
Maine Public
A man in Lewiston asks the driver of the Western Maine Transportation Green Line commuter bus for directions on Dec. 8, 2021.

Those expansions, guided by a feasibility study Western Maine Transportation completed in 2017, have chipped away at the idea that a car is always essential for getting to jobs, schools and services from places in rural Maine.

And they may offer lessons for the administration of Gov. Janet Mills, which is considering ways to improve the state’s public transit system as part of a larger plan to fight climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Overall ridership is still fairly low on Western Maine Transportation’s commuter buses, which collect fares but currently get much of their funding from a federal program meant to reduce traffic and improve air quality. But even with a big drop in riders during the first part of the coronavirus pandemic, demand appears to be rebounding at greater levels.

The Green Line offered 334 one-way trips during the first two months of the current fiscal year that started in October, according to Sandy Buchanan, general manager of Western Maine Transportation. At that rate, Buchanan says it could offer at least 1,600 trips this year, surpassing the 1,279 offered two years ago.

Jennifer Williams, director of transportation at the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments, a regional planning agency, says Western Maine Transportation has done well to create its 2017 expansion plan, methodically work through its goals and secure support from institutions and employers to try new routes. She notes that her own daughter relied on the Green Line to get home to Lewiston during her first semester studying at the University of Maine at Farmington.

“I think they’re setting a model,” Williams says.

Getting above 1%

Gov. Mills has set lofty goals for cleaning up Maine’s transportation sector as part of her comprehensive plans to fight climate change and slice greenhouse gas emissions by 80% in the next three decades.

The largely rural state is heavily dependent on cars, trucks and other gas-burning vehicles, which collectively account for 54% of the state’s emissions. The majority come from passenger cars and light-duty trucks — the three most popular vehicles in the state are the Chevrolet Silverado, Ford F-150, and GMC Sierra pickup — and the administration’s top priorities are now incentivizing the use of electric vehicles and making it easier to charge them with power from renewable sources.

Meanwhile, buses account for less than 1% of annual vehicle travel in Maine.

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Governor’s Office Of Policy Innovation And The Future
A graph from the Maine Clean Transportation Roadmap released by the administration of Gov. Janet Mills in December 2021 breaks down total miles traveled annually by different types of vehicles in Maine and its individual counties.

Still, the administration sees a role for better public transit in helping to cut down on carbon emissions. While Maine’s biggest metropolitan areas are all served to some extent by fixed-route bus systems, there is clear demand for more passenger service, particularly in rural and underserved areas.

Older and low-income Mainers generally rely on public transit the most to get around for shopping, appointments, leisure and travel, but almost three-quarters of older Mainers lived in communities without a bus service making regular stops in the last decade, according to a 10-year public transit plan developed by the Maine Department of Transportation in 2015.

Sustainably funding public transit in sparsely populated areas is difficult, and it will require serious initiative and innovation to meet that demand while also convincing regular drivers to leave their vehicle at home.

Under the state’s climate action plan, officials are considering a variety of new approaches as they update Maine DOT’s 10-year transit plan over the next year.

That includes smaller “micro-transit” services that can serve less densely populated areas, apps that can help residents track buses and pay fares across different systems, and a renewed effort to encourage carpooling through the state’s Go Maine service. Officials are also considering ways to merge public transit with existing ride options for Mainers heading to medical and social services, so as to cut down on redundant trips.

“I think a lot of people, especially people in southern Maine, maybe younger folks, for all kinds of different reasons, maybe seniors that don't really want to drive any more, are looking for transit options,” says Joyce Taylor, chief engineer at Maine DOT who is helping lead the transportation portion of the state’s climate initiatives. “I think when they talk about it, they're not necessarily seeing like that big huge bus you would see in an urban area.”

For now, officials are focusing more on bus services than passenger rail, although some residents and elected officials have pushed for an extension of Amtrak to cities including Lewiston and Bangor. State officials are also pursuing expansions in bike and pedestrian infrastructure, improved broadband access to help residents work from home and development policies that would encourage communities to centralize services to reduce the need for driving.

It will be challenging to change the behavior of Mainers who may not be accustomed to searching out a bus or sharing their cars with others. To reach those kinds of people, Taylor says new transit modes may have to pick passengers up at their homes, and then make fewer stops along the way.

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Charlie Eichacker
Maine Public
Tina Bilodeau drives the Green Line from Lewiston to Farmington on a snowy afternoon Dec. 8, 2021.

She notes that the cooperation of employers and other institutions will be essential. For example, she says that the Thompson’s Point concert venue in Portland could prioritize parking for attendees who carpool, or ski resorts could send workers home at fixed times so they can depend on a regular bus departure.

“I keep saying, we can electrify every bus in the state; it doesn’t mean ridership is going to change one iota if we don't change how people perceive sharing a ride,” Taylor says. “People want to be comfortable for the most part. They want it to be enjoyable. They want it to be reliable.”

Mikhail Chester, director of the Metis Center for Infrastructure and Sustainable Engineering at Arizona State University, says that it’s important for states to invest in rural public transportation, both to help residents who can’t easily drive themselves and to have a diversity of transportation options — which could help facilitate evacuations during the natural disasters that are expected to become more frequent as a result of climate change.

He notes that his grandmother, who lives in the coastal Maine village of Sargentville near Deer Isle, relies on taxis and buses to get to transportation hubs such as Bangor and Boston any time she visits family on the west coast.

And Chester also thinks Maine could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by improving those services, both in urban and rural areas. But given how much communities have been built up around ready access to cars, he says any climate benefits from rural transit expansion would probably be limited.

Like the Mills administration, he thinks wider adoption of electric vehicles and renewable energy will be the primary way a state such as Maine can reduce emissions.

“There are ways to make it so that more people will ride the bus, but in general, you’re trying to retrofit an infrastructure that’s designed for cars — that’s both roads and buildings, land use in general — for buses, and it's only going to go so far,” he says.

Challenge and opportunity in western Maine

The efforts by Western Maine Transportation to expand its services over the last few years point to some of the opportunities for rural transit investment, as well as some of the challenges.

In addition to the routes it’s still operating, the organization briefly offered a direct bus between Sunday River ski resort — very near where I live — and Lewiston-Auburn in 2018-2019, designed to help food workers at the resort get culinary training at Central Maine Community College in Auburn.

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Charlie Eichacker
Maine Public
A sign advertises the Green Line, a commuter service Western Maine Transportation runs between Farmington and Lewiston, at Brettun's Variety in Livermore. A connecting bus run between Brettun's and Rumford.

Such a route might have actually been a practical way for me to get to work, as opposed to my recent bus tour through three different counties, but it was cut after its first season because just one person used it.

It’s clear that many of the people who now ride the group’s rural buses are doing so because they don’t have another option. They include students, workers, families running errands and travelers on their way to long-distance buses out of bigger communities.

One of them was 30-year-old Zachary Morin, who got on one of the buses I took through Rumford, where his son and some other relatives live, and he rode to Lewiston, where he now lives and works.

“It’s great that it runs up here,” he said. “It’s the only reason I really live in Lewiston.”

Sandy Buchanan, the general manager of Western Maine Transportation, says that there seems to be a growing number of passengers who ride the buses more out of choice than necessity, and she suggested that could continue depending on other factors, such as rising fuel prices. For example, one regular passenger on the Green Line lives outside Farmington, and takes the bus down each week to her job as a health care worker at a Lewiston hospital.

“Mainers are traditionally very independent, but there’s a lot of them that, they take the bus the first time and they say, ‘Why was I making this drive?’” Buchanan says. “We need more of them to get out and tell that story.”