The University of Southern Maine and the University of Maine System in Orono have issued statements deny- ing a recent claim by four Maine bus companies, including Gorham-based Custom Coach & Limousine, that USM unfairly terminated its contract with the private company in order to contract with Metro for a different type of student bus service.
Custom Coach & Limousine is currently providing the direct Gorham to Portland student shuttle service, as it has for the past six years. USM has informed Custom Coach that the arrangement will end prior to the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year.
The private bus firms have accused Portland Metro of using taxpayer subsidies to undercut private companies interested in providing a university student shuttle service, and they shared their concerns at at a press conference held on November 28. Custom Coach & Limousine owner Gregg Isherwood said that his bus company, and other private bus companies, did not get a chance to bid on a USM student shuttle before the Metro public service was chosen.
“First, neither Gorham, USM, or Metro asked the private operator how it would affect us. Secondly, Metro went looking for an answer to a problem that doesn’t exist at the taxpayer’s expense. USM has had an efficient student shuttle provided by private operators for over 40 years. What has changed recently? Why is more service needed? In fact, USM has reduced service in the past three years due to low ridership,” said Isherwood
The group alleged that USM administrators decided to end a long-term practice of providing student shuttle services through private bus companies without adequate notice to the bus companies, or to the public. As a result, the four bus companies unveiled a coalition which they called “Taxpayers For Wise Transit Spending.”
“It’s a fine line between public transit and private charter service but when there are private carriers capable of performing this work and vying for private contracts they should not be facing unfair competition from the government services that their very own tax dollars support. We are in full support of public transit where needed, but as taxpayer funded entities, the Metro and USM must be fiscally responsible with taxpayer dollars,” added Isherwood.
Numerous press releases and media reports show that the Transit West and U-Pass plans have been widely discussed for over a year. In addition, University of Southern Maine president Glenn Cummings referred to USM’s new alliance with Metro in his inaugural address to the University community in early December of last year. Isherwood stated that while it was discussed, the private bus companies were kept in the dark about the decision until the June 2017 announcement.
In a joint statement, Metro and USM said the new transit line offers public transportation opportunities that the private sector cannot. “We should not compare what a private charter company can provide to individual organizations with what a regional transportation system can provide to a growing metropolitan area,” the statement said.
“If more service is what they want, a private contractor could double the current service for approximately $800,000, a far cry from the over $6 million in year one switching to Metro will cost. In addition, by switching to Metro thousands of dollars will be lost on excise, sales, and fuel taxes that Metro is exempt from paying; the private operator pays all these and buys their own equipment,” Isherwood countered.
The controversy has developed as USM and Metro have been moving forward with plans to jointly introduce a major transportation initiative, beginning next August. Metro’s plans involve a $4.5 million service upgrade for Portland and its western suburbs, called Transit West, which includes a new daily frequent bus service to Gorham. USM’s portion of the plan is called U-Pass, through which USM will provide free Metro bus passes to 8,000 of its students, faculty, and staff persons. It appears that Metro had been wanting to implement such an expansion for several years, and the USM participation is a key component to making the expansion viable.
In a written statement, USM spokesperson Bob Stein said that the change made sense for several important reasons. He said the University believes students will receive major benefits from gaining free access to the entire Metro bus system.
Stein stated, “We are thrilled to be part of this effort to strengthen our regional transportation network, but our number one reason for joining this partnership is that it is without question in our students’ best interest…. this will enable our students to not just to go back and forth between campuses, but to use other Metro lines to get to health appointments, to shop, and to get to internships and jobs….”
He added that the cost for the new service will be approximately the same as the cost for the current private service. A University of Maine press release states that the cost is $394,000 a year now, compared to $400,000 a year for the new Metro service. The same press release states that the University of Maine system will continue to contract with several private bus companies for athletic teams’ travel and other specialized transportation needs.