For the Price of a Beer

BeerBus

The Hampden Town Council will vote this Monday, July 20, on whether to continue to fund Saturday bus service. If they vote no, Saturday runs along the Hampden route will end on August 1. The meeting is at 7 pm in the council chambers of the Hampden Municipal Building.

It will be sad if, on the anniversary of the moon landing, the council takes one giant leap backward for its non car-owning residents. It will also be shortsighted, because public transportation is good for the economy. Reliable bus service can enable a family to give up an extra car, and they will spend a good deal of the money they save at local businesses. As several people pointed out at last week’s public hearing in Bangor, we are having the wrong discussion.

I’ve been to a few of these meetings now. Regular bus rider Andrea Rankin and others commented that it is annoying to have to repeatedly fight proposed cuts in service. The conversation we should be having is how to expand the bus system and make it better. People are starting to discover, even in Maine, that car ownership need not be a de facto requirement for full participation in the community. Others don’t own a car because they can’t afford one. Still others have physical issues that prevent them from driving.

The Community Connector bus system is paid for by a roughly one-third formula of money from fares, local governments, and the federal government. As I’ve pointed out previously in this blog, cars sitting in driveways suck up more tax dollars than buses. Yet public transportation makes a convenient target for those who want to trim town budgets by cutting services they don’t use.

What’s driving the attack on Saturday bus service, though, isn’t class warfare but a petty little grudge match between Bangor and Hampden. According to Hampden councilor Bill Shakespeare, Bangor isn’t paying its fair share. The Hampden bus serves Shaw’s, Hollywood Casino, and Beal College, all within the city limits of Bangor. Many riders on the route never enter Hampden at all. It should be called the South Bangor-Hampden route, and the cost should be shared, Shakespeare said. Local costs of the so-called “VOOT” route, which serves Veazie, Orono and Old Town, are apportioned fairly; why not do the same with the Hampden route?

Shakespeare has a point. But it’s a small point. And to “shut down the run and force the issue,” as Hampden resident Jeremy W. Jones suggested, puts the weight of a disagreement between two municipal governments squarely on the backs of people least able to carry it. What may seem like sound fiscal policy to a guy with two cars in the garage can mean the difference between working and unemployment for someone who relies on the bus. It’s a cruel solution that’s worse than the problem it purports to solve.

I’m not going to weigh in on who should pay for what, but this threat to shut down a vital service to prove a point is emblematic of what’s wrong with our politics, from the local to the national level. Hampden may be paying more than its fair share, but Hampden also owes its existence as a wealthy bedroom community to the proximity of Bangor. The city provides the jobs that enable Hampden residents to earn good salaries, a minuscule portion of which they are asked to kick in for a minimal public transportation system that serves the entire, larger community.

The annual cost to each Hampden taxpayer to maintain Saturday bus service is about the cost of a beer at a local bar. It’s a drop in the bucket for a town with a municipal budget of $6.8 million. Instead of sacrificing a needed service over a territorial squabble and a few dollars per person, maybe we should have a “Bus Riders and Taxpayers Beer Night,” and call it good.

We could do it near the holidays. It would generate all kinds of good will, between bus riders and critics of the bus. It could lead to new ideas on how to improve and grow and streamline the service. We could have it at a bar in Hampden, further stimulating the local economy.

Oh, wait. Are there any bars in Hampden? And will we have to drive to get there?

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