AREA — “It’s just wonderful. I don’t know what I’d do without it,” said Nancy Morin as she boarded the Western Maine Transportation Service bus at her home in Paris on Monday morning for a ride to her dentist.
Morin is one of dozens of local area people who use the public transportation bus routinely to get to medical appointments, social engagements, shopping or just to go out to lunch with friends.
It is a lifesaver, Morin says.
However, riders are needed to make sure the wheels on the bus continue to go round and round.
Officials at the Western Maine Transportation Service (WMTS) say they want the general public to understand that the bus service is there for everyone and to expand services, they need to know what they can do to attract more riders.
WMTS, headquartered in Auburn, is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) public transportation corporation established by statute in 1976 to serve residents in Oxford County with public, wheelchair-accessible, “green” paratransit bus service in and around the more populated regions of its service area. The service also operates in Androscoggin and Franklin counties.
Years ago, the buses picked up primarily older single women who needed rides to medical appointments, but that number dwindled in the late-1990s. Although the service continued to offer rides in Oxford County, with funding coming from each of the towns, it began to become unsustainable.
This year, Oxford County Commissioners appropriated $11,500 in the 2016 general fund budget for support of Western Maine Transportation Services. Previously the towns had been asked for direct support of the service, leaving some officials in remote areas such as northern Oxford County to question why their taxpayers should pay for a service they rarely, if ever, see.
The $11,500 is part of a total county tax load of $5,677,527 that is apportioned across the towns by respective valuations. The 2016 tax rate is 82 cents per $1,000 of assessed value applied to $6.9 billion in taxable value countywide.
“The commissioners agreed to fund WMTS after receiving assurance from WMTS officials that their agency’s service will be provided wherever client needs are identified, regardless of town,” said County Administrator Scott Cole.
Commissioners also agreed with comments from WMTS officials that time formerly spent soliciting individual towns for funding could be better spent communicating with town officials on how to best serve community needs.
“With new matching fund requirements from the state to draw down federal funding, we needed a more certain source of local match,” Community Relations Director Craig Zurhorst said of the request for the county to take over funding. “This gives us latitude to do more. With county funding we know we have to prove ourselves to the commissioners and budget committee.”
Now further attempts are being made to reach out to some of the more remote areas.
This week WMTS sent out a letter to Oxford County town officials letting them know that the agency wants to have discussions about the changing transportation needs of the county with each town, either individually or as regional groups.
The process has already been started after meeting with Otisfield selectmen on March 2 and through a community survey distributed in Bethel through the AARP Age-Friendly Community initiative. That survey identified transportation as the top need.
Now WMTS officials say they want to talk to officials in all towns in Oxford County and find out what their transportation needs are.
“We can’t make any promises other than that we will collect information and work toward meeting the needs that are identified as we are able,” said Zurhorst in the letter to Oxford County officials. “It is our desire to make public transportation more accessible to as many Oxford County residents as possible.”
In recent years, the WTMS has instituted a FlexRoute Public Bus Service where regular routes are run but can deviate off to pick up people at their residences. The cost per-boarding is $3 for adults and $1.50 for riders who are disabled, Medicare cardholders, 60 and older, and accompanied children from ages 5 to 11.
Zurhorst said it has been difficult to get the public to understand that the buses and vans are not just for elderly or disabled to get to medical appointments. It’s for anyone who needs a ride.
“What we’re seeing is that there are more people looking at public transportation or other transportation alternatives,” said Zurhorst.
It is the No. 1 issue facing older residents in Oxford County, according to a live survey of a focus group of residents 60 and older in Oxford County by SeniorPlus, the designated Agency on Aging for western Maine last month.
“Transportation always comes up,” Connie Jones of SeniorPlus said at the time.
While WMTS provides rides to the public on certain days in certain areas, Jones said, the participants worried about how they would get transportation at any time when they needed it to social events or medical appointments, particularly if they live in the rural sections of towns.
“You never know year to year who’s going to need the service,” Zurhorst recently told the Otisfield selectmen.
In 2015, for example, WMTS provided 41 trips to eight residents in Waterford. Similar numbers are posted in towns like Otisfield, where four people have been picked up in Otisfield since November 2015. It is towns like these that Zurhorst said he hopes can be serviced on a more regular basis now that the county has taken over payment.
Transportation is not just an issue for seniors. It also affects people of all ages.
“The economy may be getting better but the cost of ownership [of a car] hasn’t gone down much. There are still lots of young people who say they just can’t afford a car,” Zurhorst said.
Zurhorst said there are many possibilities for expanding routes including connecting with the Lakes Region bus service in Naples that goes into Portland or expanding trips into more remote areas of Oxford County.
“I think just to get people’s engagement about transportation is very important. It’s time for us to take a look at what the current needs are,” Zurhorst said.
Western Maine Transportation Services buses are open to the public Monday through Friday for daytime rides. Riders can reach WMTS at 800-393-9335 from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday to get more information and schedule a curb-to-curb ride.
“We’re going to try anything we can to be a relevant service,” Zurhorst told Otsifield selectmen.
Oxford County bus riders
Is the bus service open to the public?
Bus/van service is open to the public. Contracted rides, such as with MaineCare, are restricted.
How much does it cost?
Fares for up to 25 miles are $3 for an adult and $1.50 for seniors 60 and older, children ages 5 to 11, the disabled and anyone having a valid Medicare card. Accompanied children younger than 5, trained service animals and eligible personal care attendants may travel at no charge. Fares are paid in correct-change cash at the time of boarding. Booklets of tickets may be pre-purchased through the WMTS office by cash or check.
How can I schedule a ride?
Riders can reach WMTS at 800-393-9335 from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday to get more information and schedule a curb-to-curb ride.
Where can I go?
WMTS can take riders to and from work, pharmacies, shopping, hair and personal care, libraries, visits with family and friends, food pantries, meal and warming centers and medical appointments and other places as needed.
How far do you go?
At this time, with the exception of Tuesdays, the only available daily direction of travel goes to Oxford, Norway and South Paris. Weekly trips are made on Tuesday along Route 26 in Norway and South Paris to Lewiston/Auburn. Service to Lewiston/Auburn on these days includes stops at the Auburn Mall, where riders can pick up the citylink free shoppers’ shuttle to the Lewiston Oak Street Bus station where the citylink buses/Lisbon Connection/Greyhound buses, and to the Lewiston Mall and the Lewiston VA Clinic.
Is there any way to get to Portland or beyond?
Greyhound operates its intra-state and inter-state buses out of Lewiston’s Oak Street Station.
How long is the trip?
WMTS provides demand-response service. Unless a “shoppers bus” was established, duration would be determined on a trip-by-trip basis and be affected by other riders.
What is the vehicle? Driven by a volunteer/WMTS employee?
It is a bus/van for public rides, contract rides are often provided by trained volunteer drivers.
Is there any assistance provided?
Door-to-door service is provided by drivers trained in passenger assistance. As long as WMTS is aware of the need ahead of time, a wheelchair-accessible vehicle will be provided.
What are the cancellation policies?
WMTS appreciates 48 hours notice for cancellation, but 24 hours from the time of the trip should be sufficient. Cancellation may be made prior to the time of pick-up, but we truly appreciate 1 to 2 hours notice, if at all possible.
Is there a regular route?
Not a this time. Routes are based on rider requests.
How many bags or packages can I bring on a bus?
The rider must be able to carry their packages or bags onto and off of the bus by themselves in one trip and secure them safely within their seated space.
Can I leave shopping bags on a bus while I shop at another store?
No. Unsecured packages can shift or spill. Because of this, for the safety of other riders, all bags and parcels must be taken with the rider when they leave the bus.
Can the driver come get me at my door to help me into the bus?
No. Due to limited time and rules concerning liability, the driver may only help you on and off the bus at the curb. If you need additional assistance, please tell the Customer Service Representative scheduling your ride about your specific needs.