HALLOWELL — Funding and availability of service in rural areas of the state are the biggest setbacks for public transit in Maine.

That was the message from representatives of central Maine community groups at the Maine Department of Transportion’s public transit forum Friday at the Cohen Community Center.

The forum to gather input for the next “Long-Range Transportation Plan” was hosted by age-friendly groups from Hallowell, Gardiner, Augusta, Readfield and Spectrum Generations, a central Maine agency committed to improving the quality of life for older and disabled Mainers.

Mary Ann Hayes, Multimodal Planning Division Manager at the DOT, said input gathered at the forum will inform a five-year local plan for statewide transit and the long-range plan that, when completed, would run until 2050.

At the start of the meeting, Hayes listed a number of areas of concern from previous forums. She said Maine’s sprawled development, aging equipment, and lack of publicity, adequate funding and drivers have hampered public transit in Maine.

Many of the forum’s 30 attendees were focused on the availability of transportation for seniors who could be isolated in their homes without access to community events or shopping areas. Mary Ann Zagaria, a member of Hallowell’s All Age Friendly Committee, said communities should focus on public transportation to help seniors age in place and be active within the municipality.

“I think transportation is the underlying factor,” she said. “Transportation is absolutely that connector.”

Aside from funding being tight, bus services also fall short of taking users all the way home, what Hayes call “the last mile.” Some services are not allowed to deviate from their routes, Hayes said, even if a user lives a quarter mile off of it.

Some grassroots groups try to fill that need, but operate on donations. One example of grassroots effort is nonprofit Neighbors Driving Neighbors, which offers residents of Belgrade, Fayette, Mount Vernon, Rome and Vienna free rides.

Near the end of the forum, attendees ranked priorities for statewide transit. Pursuing increased funding from private, state and county government was voted the top priority and second with increasing partnerships with businesses and medical centers.

Other important priorities were increasing publicity for transit services, replacing old vehicles, making transit passes available instead of only taking cash and supporting grassroots efforts to fill gaps in “last mile” coverage.

State Rep. Charlotte Warren, who represents Hallowell, Farmingdale and West Gardiner, attended the forum. She pledged support for a transportation bond and also floated a public/private partnership for public transportation with the Maine Department of Transportation as the “backbone” overseeing the operation, something they are not doing currently.

“We’re all aware that (public transportation) is an issue,” she said. “We have to have something that goes above (local groups).”

Warren also urged forum attendees to come to Legislative hearings about transit matters.

Jim Wood, transportation development director for the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, said their transportation projects have suffered from a lack of funding and volunteers. He said the Kennebec Explorer and Somerset Explorer costs the program $9 per passenger — while only charging $1.25 per ride. Compounding that, demand is growing in rural parts of their coverage area. Also, the cost to operate a Kennebec Explorer bus with a full-time driver is about $75,000.

“You’re not going to do it (public transit in Maine) with subsidies,” Wood told another attendee when asked about keeping cost per passenger down.

He said tight funding for the program creates a need for volunteer drivers for their MaineCare Transportation program. Wood said the group has 90 volunteers, but it needs about 130.

Forum attendees floated giving volunteers an insurance or tax break to drum up numbers, but Wood said that it would become legally foggy to give benefits to a volunteer without employing them. Volunteers are reimbursed 41 cents per mile, he said.

Maggie Warren, a member of Hallowell’s All Age Friendly Committee, mentioned using often-dormant school buses to transport seniors around. Hayes said school boards could make a policy change that allows those buses to be used if the buses were owned by the school system.

“We’ve got (the buses),” Warren said. “It’s just the policy that keeps us divided.”

Sara Grant, chairwoman of the Augusta Age Friendly Committee, said the forum was a success and a good step toward finding a solution to the transit problem in Maine.

“It’s good that we’re making progess and (finding) solutions,” she said after the forum.

The final transit forum will be in Bangor on Dec. 4.

Sam Shepherd — 621-5666

[email protected]

Twitter: @SamShepME

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