SKOWHEGAN — Star DeBerry and her 5-month-old son, Trigger, ride the bus from their home at Ames Somerset Parks into downtown Skowhegan and back.
It costs $2.
The public Somerset Explorer bus service is a lifeline for DeBerry and others for doctor visits, errands, shopping and socializing.
“I just had a counseling appointment at Kennebec Behavioral Health and we’re going back home,” DeBerry, 34, said on the bus Wednesday morning. “I think it’s great because without the bus I wouldn’t have a way to get anywhere. I use it to go to Walmart, for his pediatrician, to go get formula, diapers.”
Ridership on the 10-seat passenger bus is on the rise and soon will include a new bus shelter in Skowhegan in conjunction with the $400,000 revitalization of the municipal parking area downtown. Cost estimates on the bus shelter, which is slated for construction in the spring, are expected this month with financing from local businesses and through the Skowhegan Rotary Club.
The price of the 5-foot-wide, 12-foot-long shelter ranges from about $3,600 to $6,900, depending on the size and materials that are used.
Somerset Explorer has logged 4,400 riders on routes from Skowhegan to Madison, Anson, Norridgewock and back since it began in November 2012. Daily use went from 16 paid passengers per day in 2012 to 38 passengers per day last year, said James Wood, transportation director of Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, which owns and operates public bus services in Somerset and Kennebec counties.
The bus is handicapped accessible and has a hydraulic lift. The cost is $1 each way in Skowhegan and $1.25 each way to the other towns. Children under 12 ride free.
Liza Dawes, of Madison, said bus driver Rhonda Watson picks her up outside her home as part of the regular bus route and takes her Skowhegan to go shopping at Walmart or Hannaford supermarket, where other passengers are picked up and dropped off.
On Wednesday, Dawes, 37, said she will do her shopping then spending the rest of the afternoon just riding around and visiting with the other passengers she has come to know over the past year.
“Most of us have developed relationships with each other, friendships,” Dawes said. “We know each other by first name basis, help each other bring groceries on and off the bus. It’s a big community and socialization for people. It’s amazing. I have no car, so the only way I can get to Skowhegan to get groceries or go to my appointments is this — I would definitely be in trouble without this.”
The bus route from beginning to end takes about three hours and stops at apartment complexes, low-income and senior housing projects, the stores at Fairgrounds Market Place, the state career center, then to Madison locations, the Anson town office and the Norridgewock municipal parking lot before returning to the Skowhegan Area Chamber of Commerce building where the route begins.
Bus routes in the winter are from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but run five days a week in the summer, when a second bus is added to accommodate summer recreation activities for the Move More Kids program.
The bus also will make runs to Redington-Fairview General Hospital in Skowhegan, the Department of Health and Human Services or doctors’ offices if a passenger needs a ride there.
Jeff Hewett, Skowhegan’s director of economic and community development, said the proposed bus shelter would be built behind the chamber building, along one of three planned pedestrian walkways as part of the new municipal parking lot downtown.
The $400,000 revitalization job is financed through bonds approved by Maine voters in 2010 as part of the Communities for Maine’s Future grant program. The bonds were released by Gov. Paul LePage in 2012.
Skowhegan was awarded the grant to improve the municipal parking area with pedestrian walkways, street lighting, trees, benches, granite curbs, signs and some underground drainage work.
Hewett said work is expected to get underway by the first week of April.
A second phase of the project to repave the parking lot and complete the drainage work will cost another $400,000 and would come from future Community Development Block Grant money administered by the state, Hewett said. Grant applications have been submitted and the town should know in May if the grant has been awarded, he said. Work would begin on the second phase of the project by the end of the summer.