AUGUSTA — A proposal to connect the Lewiston-Auburn area to Portland via an expansion of commuter bus service is generating support from alternative transportation advocates and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
But the bill is getting resistance from the Maine Turnpike Authority, the agency that would be responsible for funding the project.
The proposed expansion of the ZOOM Turnpike Express service is included in LD 673, a bill sponsored by state Rep. Bradley Moulton, R-York. ZOOM runs several buses on the turnpike between stops in Saco and Biddeford and four downtown locations in Portland.
Moulton's bill would expand that service to add stops along the turnpike at a location in the L-A region, as well as in Augusta. The expansion would also extend farther south with stops in Kennebunk and Wells.
The proposal has 26 co-sponsors including Republicans, Democrats and an independent.
Proponents say the expansion would provide a much-needed transportation alternative for people who can't afford cars. It also would remove vehicular traffic from the turnpike and reduce consumption of gasoline.
The Turnpike Authority is opposing the $7 million project, in part because the quasi-public organization would be largely responsible for funding it.
The existing service operates on a $320,000 annual budget. According to the MTA, about 30 percent of the ZOOM budget is funded by $95,000 in bus fares. Another $115,000 comes from turnpike tolls. The rest is funded through a $110,000 federal allocation to the Maine Department of Transportation.
Moulton's bill would require the MTA to allocate 3 percent of its annual revenues to the MDOT to pay for the expansion. The MTA collects about $100 million per year in toll revenue.
Proponents estimate that the expanded service would cost about $3 million a year to operate.
It also would require $3.85 million in upfront capital costs for four new buses.
The MTA believes the need doesn't justify the costs.
According to MDOT, the existing ZOOM service had 24,000 riders in 2010.
But supporters of the expansion counter that the existing service suffers because the Biddeford and Saco stops are located at park-and-ride lots far from downtown areas. Groups supporting the bill, including the Conservation Law Foundation and the Maine Alliance for Sustainable Transportation, say ridership would increase if the stops were located downtown, as the bill proposes.
Moulton told the Legislature's Transportation Committee on Tuesday that the bill sought to help Mainers reach their destinations quickly at a low cost.
The current ZOOM service is $5 for a one-way trip. Fares for the proposed expansion have not been provided.
Nicola Wells, a Lewiston resident and a member of the Maine League of Young Voters, told the transportation panel that the expanded service was much-needed in the absence of other mass transit options in the region.
"Rail is, if not three, five, perhaps even 10 years away, but we need relief now," she said. "The ZOOM is an elegant and simple solution to our broken transportation system."
Christian MilNeil, with the transportation alliance, said the MTA needs to do "more than collect tolls." He said the 3 percent allocation to MDOT could also mean that the authority would help pay for road repairs on other state roads.
Steven Scharf, a self-described fiscal conservative from Portland, told the panel that the expansion could be a good economic development tool and a good revenue source.
Jane West of the Conservation Law Foundation said the proposal made sound environmental and economic sense. West said Maine commuters would save an average of 730 gallons of gas per year.
"That’s about $2,200 a year going back into the pockets of Maine families," West said.
The bill is scheduled for a March 29 work session and committee vote.