AUBURN — A funding shortfall on the horizon for Lewiston-Auburn’s citylink bus system has some city officials wondering whether an overhaul of the service is needed.

At the center of the discussion remains the level of support coming from Auburn, which decided to cut its funding in 2016. 

That decision, according to members of the Lewiston-Auburn Transit Committee, caused a ripple effect that has affected federal funding and service levels.

In response to Auburn’s $53,000 cut for fiscal year 2017, which effectively doubled to $106,000 in matching federal funds, the LATC took a bus out of service. There’s broad agreement that it has affected route times and overall service, but it also affected ridership numbers and route miles — figures that play into federal funding levels. 

A last-minute effort by Auburn Councilor Belinda Gerry to restore full funding this year failed by a vote of 4-3. Gerry, a frequent citylink rider, said routes are “dysfunctional” and many people still depend on the bus. 

Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque, standing by the council’s decision not to restore funding this year, has said citylink needs to reinvent itself. 

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Levesque turned a few heads during budget season when he said it would be cheaper to give everyone a pass for Uber than to continue citylink as is. He said this week that he was only highlighting the need for the bus system to update how it operates, rather than continue with a public transportation system “that is falling short.” 

“Yes, if we increase city funding, we’d get more federal funding, but everybody would just keep rolling along with the same bus system that has limited hours and is not very effective,” he said. “I’m not seeing the massive demand for it.” 

He called on the cities to “roll up our sleeves” and do a better job of creating a “valuable” service. 

Among the ideas pitched by Levesque is to reach out to local businesses to possibly curate private sponsors for the system, possibly switch to smaller buses, and to overhaul its service schedule. 

The citylink bus system is owned by the Lewiston-Auburn Transit Committee, but is operated and maintained by Western Maine Transportation Services. The current three-year contract began in 2016. 

According to Denis D’Auteuil, Lewiston’s deputy city administrator and chairman of the LATC, the uphill battle ahead for citylink is a $200,000 budget shortfall projected for fiscal year 2020.

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The decreased ridership numbers, he said, played into LATC missing a federal benchmark for $200,000 in funding starting this year. According to an LATC budget presentation, the decrease will not have a major effect on fiscal year 2018 because of carryover funds, and fiscal year 2019 will likely be covered by capital funding that will be used on operations.

Fiscal year 2020, however, is the real question. 

D’Auteuil said the committee has long had the desire to expand the service, recognizing the need to better align service schedules with work-shift changes. Currently, buses stop running at 6 p.m. 

“We want to make changes, we want to make improvements, but the reality is we need investment into our transit system to make that happen,” he said. “We can only run what we have funding for.”

He pointed out that citylink has the lowest administrative costs ($63,500) of any transit system in the state’s largest cities. 

Since 2015, when ridership was at an all-time high of 424,652, the numbers have steadily fallen, reaching 328,512 last year. 

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According to the LATC budget memo, “the elimination of one bus has left significant gaps in citylink’s service, increased passenger travel times, and increased the number of transfers between buses. The reduction in service resulted in a 5.7 percent loss in ridership, most notably on bus routes serving Auburn.” 

Auburn Councilor Andrew Titus, who was in favor of the original budget cuts in 2016, has argued that Auburn is not getting 50 percent of the bus service, meaning the city shouldn’t pay half of the cost.

However, LATC members have said the route miles are split evenly between the cities. 

Marsha Bennett, transit coordinator for citylink, said heading into 2020 will be a challenge, but she said, “We’re going to work on it.” 

She said the situation in Auburn is difficult because the LATC is being asked to prove — with less money — that citylink is a good system in order to get full funding restored. 

“You break the system, but then if we want the money back, we have to show there’s value,” she said. 

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Bennett said the federal funding formula is complicated, and that all of the blame can’t be placed on Auburn. She said prior to the cuts in Auburn, citylink was always on a close margin to the federal benchmarks. She described the cuts in Auburn as just “salt in the wound.” 

Levesque said that since the budget meetings this past spring, he’s met with the LATC about the future. He said even if it meant a larger investment, if citylink had a proposal to overhaul the system, he would advocate for it to the council. That is, depending on what the proposal was. 

“It’s about challenging the status quo,” he said. 

Bennett said the committee has been given the directive to get creative. 

“We’ll look and see what we come up with, but it’s a challenge right now,” she said.

During the citylink budget discussion in May, Councilor Gerry was visibly upset after her pitch to restore the funding failed. She said people are losing faith in the bus service.

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She looked up and said, “This budget sucks, but we have to live with it.”

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The citylink bus system in Lewiston-Auburn faces a funding shortfall in the coming years, and officials wonder if an overhaul of the service is needed. (Sun Journal file photo) 

This table shows the local share of funding to the Lewiston-Auburn citylink bus system, which in recent years has splintered from a 50/50 model, with Lewiston funding more of the bus system. (Lewiston-Auburn Transit Committee)

Ridership numbers for citylink spiked in 2015, in part because of high gasoline prices, and have steadily declined since. (Lewiston-Auburn Transit Committee)


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