AUBURN — City officials this week debated whether to restore previous funding levels for the Lewiston-Auburn Transit Committee, which would bring the Citylink bus system back to full service.

Auburn officials are considering a boost in funding for the Citylink bus system, which would return it to full service.

During an Auburn budget workshop Monday, Citylink Transit Coordinator Marsha Bennett presented two budget proposals for next year: a “status quo” budget and a budget that would restore Citylink to full service, which was last seen in fiscal 2016.

In 2017, the Auburn City Council cut funding for Citylink, which led to significant cuts in service, particularly for the New Auburn route. The cut took one bus out of service and led to the district missing a ridership benchmark for federal dollars.

City Manager Peter Crichton, who recommended the full-service option in his proposed city budget for next year, said Auburn has lost 25 percent of its ridership since 2016.

The Citylink bus system is owned by the Lewiston-Auburn Transit Committee, but is operated and maintained by Western Maine Transportation Services.

“You take a bus out of service, that’s about 12 hours per day, and it does leave some holes in the system,” Bennett said Monday.

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The proposed fiscal 2020 full-service budget would be an increase of 19.8% over this year, with Auburn’s share going from roughly $217,500 to $336,300. Lewiston’s share would go from $280,300 to $336,300.

For Auburn, the increase in its share would be 68%, but its bus service levels would rise from 21 hours per weekday to 36 hours. Lewiston’s service levels are currently 36.75 hours per weekday, and would remain at that level.

Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque argued that the budget, until a few years ago, was split evenly between Lewiston and Auburn, despite Lewiston’s having a larger population.

Bennett said the split is based on hours of service. A full-service system would have the greatest impact to the New Auburn and Mall Shuttle routes in Auburn.

“If you want a transit system, you need to pay for a transit system that’s going to work, that’s going to make connections, that’s going to actually take people to where they want to go without having to take an hour-and-a-half trip,” she said.

Bennett said if the system were restored to full service, it could benefit from increased federal funding.

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In Lewiston, the increased funding for full service is included in next year’s budget. The City Council is set to vote on the budget Tuesday.

Levesque pointed to a year ago, when he asked the transit committee to “think outside the box” when it came to the bus system. He also doubled down on a comment he made a year ago, when he claimed it would be cheaper to give passes to residents to take an Uber.

“I’m not backing down off that comment,” he said.

Levesque said he is in favor of experimenting with the service and increasing specific routes in order to shorten trips, but “not to the tune of $117,000.”

Councilor Belinda Gerry said she supports the full funding, calling Auburn’s cuts in 2017 “a great disservice” to the community, which caused customers to lose faith in the service.

According to an LATC budget memo last year, “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.”

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Levesque told Gerry he did not want to hear “emotional pleas” but wanted to see data proving increased funds will lead to increased ridership.

Councilor Andy Titus agreed with Levesque, but an official straw poll was not taken among the council.

“Dependable service and routes that take people where they need to go will bring back the riders,” Gerry said.

Councilor Holly Lasagna said now could be the time to “start from scratch” in terms of determining which routes will work best to boost ridership.

In an email Wednesday, Bennett said restoring the 2016 service levels would add 15½ hours of service per weekday, 15 of which would improve service on Auburn’s four bus routes. It would also bring the system from six buses to seven.

She said the New Auburn route would see the biggest change.

“This route is currently a 30-minute route serving Great Falls to New Auburn, back to Great Falls every hour,” she said. “The added funds would allow for New Auburn to be a 60-minute route beginning at the Auburn Downtown Transportation Center in Great Falls, providing service in New Auburn before ending at the Oak Street bus station in Lewiston. The New Auburn bus would then depart the Oak Street station and reverse the route back to Great Falls.”

The New Auburn route would also start at 5:45 a.m., making it the earliest start time for any Citylink route.

“This would be considered a significant change to the service,” she said, “so LATC will need to hold a public hearing before any changes are approved.”


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