LEWISTON — The Visible Community wants Lewiston-Auburn to improve and expand the CityLink bus service, and it's hoping a petition drive will convince city leaders of the need.
On Thursday, at least 10 members gathered at the Oak Street bus station and rode buses across the Twin Cities to collect signatures backing the most comprehensive and most expensive of three options outlined in a transportation planner's report, released last year.
That option calls for, among other things, 60-minute bus route schedules, service until 9:30 p.m. on some routes and limited service on Saturdays.
Currently, CityLink buses run on 30-minute schedules, which are so tight that they are often late. Buses stop accepting passengers after 5:15 p.m. and do not run on Saturdays.
The cities pay $130,000 each for the bus service. The most comprehensive option would cost Lewiston and Auburn $247,000 each, according to the Lewiston-Auburn Transit Committee, which operates the bus system.
Phil Nadeau, Lewiston's deputy city administrator and a member of the transit committee, likes the most comprehensive option. But, he said, it's too expensive right now.
"We're just trying to strike a middle ground between what we think people would love to see and what, hopefully, the councils will say they can afford to spend," Nadeau said.
The committee's option calls for 60-minute schedules and limited Saturday service but no evening hours. That would cost the cities $176,000 each, plus an additional $56,000 taken from the committee's reserve fund to pay for Saturday service in a one-year trial. The committee will recommend that more modest option when it presents its budget to Lewiston and Auburn city councils in a joint meeting April 12.
But the Visible Community, a grassroots group representing Lewiston's poorest neighborhoods, believes that "middle ground" proposal is not enough for riders.
"People would like to see vast improvement to the bus system," said Genevieve Lysen, Androscoggin Valley community organizer for the Maine People's Alliance, which helps support the Visible Community.
According to the group, Lewiston-Auburn has seen ridership more than double between 1997 and 2008, but compared to many other Maine cities, it contributes among the lowest amount.
Citing figures from the Androscoggin Transportation Resource Center, which is responsible for planning the greater Lewiston-Auburn's transportation system, the Visible Community said Bangor, Falmouth, Portland, South Portland and Westbrook all contribute more for their bus systems than Lewiston and Auburn each do — in some cases hundreds of thousands more.
And, the group said, citing the transportation planner's report from last year, more than 3,000 Lewiston-Auburn households don't have access to cars, making mass transit even more important.
"We found, in talking to folks about the bus system, that the lack of transportation is a barrier for finding employment," Lysen said.
Before Thursday, the group had collected about 400 signatures in support of the more comprehensive, more expensive plan. It expected many more as members fanned out across the bus route Thursday. Their goal: get enough public support to prove to the city councils that the most comprehensive option is both wanted and needed.
The Lewiston-Auburn Transit Committee will present its recommendation to the Lewiston and Auburn city councils on April 12 as part of its proposed budget. The Visible Community said it plans to present its signatures to the councils at the same time.