I went to the recent city council workshop on alternative hubs for Bangor’s Community Connector bus system. The city has come into some money for the revitalization of Pickering Square, and the council is debating whether the bus depot should remain there or be relocated.
Some 60 people attended the meeting, on the day after digging out from one snowstorm in anticipation of another. The workshop had been postponed from Monday to Wednesday, and bus riders would either have to walk or find a ride home afterward. Nonetheless, they showed up in substantial numbers and made their voices heard.
The tone of the discussion remained positive throughout. City staff presented three options, all of which would keep the bus in the general downtown area. Though Councilor David Neally briefly brought it up, a fourth idea, siting the bus hub out near the Airport Mall, seems to have died the death it deserves. It ought to have a stake driven through its heart, just to be sure.
Another option, Abbot Square across from the Bangor Public Library, received little support, mostly because of traffic issues.
At meeting’s end, two options remained on the table: improve the bus hub at its present location, or build a brand new depot up the hill on Washington Street near Walgreen’s, about half a mile away.
The Washington Street plan would include a small, continuously circling shuttle bus, serving downtown (something that also makes sense where the bus is now, and that I’ve proposed in this space). The site is also large enough to incorporate out-of-town bus services and possibly “intermodal” transportation of the future.
Though the idea is sexy – a real public transportation hub in Bangor, with a nice waiting area and an office staffed by real human beings, maybe in the far future connected to a train – but Councilor Gibran Graham warned about getting “stars in our eyes.”
Graham cited the example of Portland, which is well served by the Concord Coach bus lines and the Amtrak Downeaster. Portland also has a robust local bus system, the METRO, which I’ve used in visits to the city. The hub of the METRO is in the heart of downtown. The station for the trains and long-distance bus is on the edge of town, along the number 5 route, which continues on to the Portland JetPort and the Maine Mall.
This is the way most cities do it, Graham said. Bangor is a hub, and the spokes of the wheel radiate from Pickering Square. This is a compelling reason to keep the nexus of the system where it is, and to make needed improvements in its present location.
I can think of no equally compelling reason to move the bus hub off-center.
Pickering Square provides convenient access to downtown businesses. Owners of those businesses ought to be the biggest boosters of a central bus hub, especially if we get the hours extended into the evening (which I realize is a separate, but equally important, issue). A single bus can deliver as many as 30 customers in the space it takes to park three cars. Every time I come downtown by bus instead of using a car, I free up a parking space for someone else. Multiply me by everyone on the bus, and you can see the mitigating effect the bus system has on traffic and parking.
A few people at the meeting alluded to the presence of drug dealers and other seedy elements in the square. But it would be a mistake to conflate those issues with the presence of the bus. They really have nothing to do with one another. The presence of police on foot and bicycles has already done much to address those problems.
I still like the idea of a downtown shuttle, and a connection to the Concord Coach and Greyhound buses is needed as well. And there needs to be a comfortable waiting area, staffed by a representative of the Community Connector. I’m not opposed to a downtown depot for all forms of public transportation. But the re-design of Pickering Square needs to start with the bus station and proceed from there.
Downtowns thrive when municipal governments take proactive steps to encourage alternatives to the automobile. We are seeing this happen all over the country and the world. Bangor needs to get onboard with this burgeoning movement by making a modern bus hub a centerpiece of new, smart development.