By Lynne Williams, Esq.
Infrastructure is a popular word in Maine these days, and a popular cause. The recent passage of a ballot measure in the amount of $15 million in general obligation bonds for the ConnectME Authority, to provide funding for high-speed internet infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas of the state, is very welcome. Remote learning and business creation and operation are important in our rural state and broadband access is required for both purposes.
However, infrastructure needs to include more than just broadband. People still need to physically get from location one to location two and nowhere is that more challenging than in rural Maine. When I pick up hitchhikers along Route 3, they often mention that they are on their way to work or to a job interview. Recently, a young man posted on a Facebook page for a rural Maine town that he had gotten a good job offer and needed help with transportation. He noted that he didn’t have a car, but he hoped to be able to get one after awhile in the new job. Situations like this break my heart. When someone gets him or herself to a job interview, without owning a vehicle, and gets offered the job, we cannot then tell that person that it’s their own fault if they lose the job because they don’t have an automobile or, as I should say, a reliable automobile.
Having grown up and lived for the first 48 years of my life in cities and towns with excellent public transportation systems, the lack of public transportation in rural Maine was a shock. What we do have is excellent. I have not taken my car out of state for at least 15 years, always taking the bus from Bangor to Boston, and then Amtrak to mostly everywhere else that I go, including cross-country to California. Yet, big buses and trains, at least at this time, will not work for those who need to get to jobs in rural communities, and we need to find a solution. After all, is a job really a job if you can’t get there?
Over the past few months, I have been following the work of the Governor’s Economic Recovery Committee, particularly the Infrastructure Subcommittee. While much of the discussion was about broadband, and rightly so, I was a bit disappointed that to date there has not been more discussion about public transportation. When they did discuss transportation, it was about the need of the DOT for funding for road and bridge repairs rather than transportation as it relates to rural Mainers’ daily lives.
I have also been following Maine’s Transportation Working Group, which is part of the Maine Climate Council, and its draft recommendations have been instructive. Moving forward from a general consensus that Maine needs to improve public transportation, particularly in rural regions, the group has come up with a number of specific ideas that warrant consideration. Two suggestions that should be seriously considered include the purchase of smaller student transport vehicles, such as vans or small buses, that would allow for off-time usage as public transportation for community residents; and connecting transit hubs, where through-transportation already exists, such as Bangor, with smaller community transportation systems that run on a regular schedule. Some of this community transportation exists but nowhere near as frequently as needed.
Additional proposals are emerging from the Northeastern states’ participation in the Transportation-Climate Initiative Program, particularly from work being done in Massachusetts. The focus there is on increasing public transportation in the rural western part of the state through the use of micro-transit systems, shuttles and “community connectors” that connect to regional transit hubs in larger towns. Van shuttles offer both on-demand services as well as regularly–scheduled services, and many of them operate seven days a week.
I have been following transportation issues for a long time. Having always loved rail travel, I had a rail transportation website called TheTrainTraveler.com from 1999 until about 2005. However, until I moved to Maine in 1998, I always took public transportation for granted. Once here, I had a car to get around my region and Concord Coachlines and Amtrak to wander farther afield. But as I become more aware of the public transportation deficit faced in rural Maine by those without automobiles, and by those who can’t drive, for medical or other reasons, I feel strongly that we must actively seek creative transportation options. Everyone deserves access to transportation, including accessible transportation for those with special needs – to get to work, to medical appointments, to visit family, to travel and to explore our beautiful state. We should offer no less to all Mainers.
Lynne Williams is an attorney, Bar Harbor resident and candidate for the Maine House of Representatives for District 135, which includes Bar Harbor, Lamoine and Mount Desert.