AUGUSTA — The Maine Department of Transportation plans to phase out its van-pool program by May 1, but it hopes participants will transition to a private company that offers a similar service.
Sue Moreau, who manages passenger services for MDOT, said the change was precipitated by finances and not a lack of participation.
“People have been surprised and some are a little unnerved because it’s a change,” she said Monday. “But we feel like we’re saving the program.”
Not everyone was pleased.
Virginia deLormier travels from Newport or Fairfield to Augusta in a GoMaine van. She said participants were notified late last week and have little time to make other arrangements.
“I want to know if they considered anything else before they made this decision,” she said in an interview Monday.
The van-pool program, a service of GoMaine, has been around since 2002 and serves about 250 Mainers. When the program started, there were about 10 routes, Moreau said. Now there are more than twice that many.
Moreau said MDOT realized in recent years that the impending cost of replacing its vans was going to be prohibitive. Participants subsidize the program through a monthly fee, but that covers only gas and maintenance. The fee is based on the number of miles traveled. Bangor to Augusta costs $200 a month. Portland to Augusta costs $175 a month.
“As we started looking at replacing vehicles, we saw that federal funding was becoming less available and our own resources were drying up too,” she said, referring to U.S. DOT grants that help replace aging fleets. “That’s when we started looking at other options.”
One of those options is VPSI Inc., a private firm based in Michigan that is prepared to take over the GoMaine routes.
“For the state to transition to a private model made sense,” Moreau said. “They can get the same number of vehicles and they might be able to expand where we have been at capacity for awhile.”
The demand is not likely to decrease anytime soon. As the price of gas continues to rise, more and more Mainers likely will be looking at other options. Although the van-pool program will be transitioned to the private sector, Moreau said GoMaine still will offer other ride-sharing options.
She said she didn’t know what the price difference would be for users to shift to a private service. In some cases, private firms have bigger vans than the 12-passenger vehicles in the GoMaine fleet, which could drive the cost down.
“We don’t have a contract and we’re not subsidizing that program, but we weren’t before,” Moreau said.
DeLormier said one of her fellow riders contacted VPSI on Monday to get a quote. Riders from Newport to Augusta now pay $155 per month. On a VPSI van, that would be $287 a month, the rider was told.
“Everyone who rides now would probably be willing to pay a little more because of high gas prices, but that’s almost double,” she said.