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Changes on the Way for Lewiston-Auburn Bus Service
11/27/2013  

It's been a tough six months for bus riders in the Twin Cities of Lewiston-Auburn. That's because the bus system - called Citylink - has faced ongoing maintenance, rust and corrosion problems with its fleet, causing headaches for passengers and city officials alike. In late October, service was reduced so much that half the fleet was taken off the road, and bus routes that normally took one hour to complete took two hours while other routes were eliminated completely. But changes are on the way, as Caroline Losneck reports.

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Patricia Levesque has been a driver for Citylink for almost two years. Today, she's in charge of the Lisbon Street route, popular with shoppers, with stops at grocery and retails stores as well as the University of Southern Maine and Department of Veteran's Affairs Clinic.

"This service is here for those who are unable to drive for themselves," Levesque says. "A large portion of our ridership are those who are disabled and elderly and no longer have licenses, for whatever reason."

She says other riders have made the choice to ride the bus because it's cheaper than owning a car. Her routes serve as many as 2,000 people a month, including Melissa, a regular rider with children who doesn't own a car.

With the recent maintenance issues with buses, Melissa worries about further reduced schedules. "It would be hard because people would go and get stuck places for hours at a time," she says.

"Most of the dependability issues we've been experiencing now for quite a few years started with the purchase of what we refer to as low floor buses," says Phil Nadeau, chair of the Lewiston-Auburn Transportation Committee.

Low floor buses are often required for transit systems to comply with the Americans WIth Disabilitites Act. But starting in September of this year, two of Citylink's low-floor buses were permanently sidelined, with concerns over corrosion. And Nadeau fears that four more will also need to be pulled from the road for mechanical issues.

"And we are literally turning over heaven and earth to find parts," he says. "And it's not a good way to run a transit system. It's not a good way to take care of buses."

Adding to the strain, Citylink is struggling to comply with a Federal Transit Administation requirement to keep certain buses in service for 12 years, or face fines.

The upshot of these bus woes is that city officials have found resource in Portland. Lewiston-Auburn has purchased three former Metro buses, and teh first one was placed in service on Wednesday to help sustain the transit system.

But for long-term viability, George Dycio, the Lewiston/Auburn Economic Growth Council, says there also needs to be a cultural change.

"The whole idea now is to reduce your carbon footprint," Dycio says. "So if there is a way to get out of the automobile, get on something that is publicly provided and make it convenient, I think it should work. But it's a mindset. We are very tied to our car. We see that as very independent, lot of freedom. But if you're just going to work or to the malls, places like that, you leave the car behind, take the public transit, and enjoy the ride."

Back on the bus, a passenger named Sally says she rides to work everyday. "If it wasn't for the buses I wouldn't have my job. I use the bus every day to go to work."

Lewiston City Councilor Craig Saddlemire says Lewiston-Auburn needs to plan for more walkable communities. "There's a lot of social and economic benefits of transit service that we are yet to fully realize in Maine," he says.

Citylink ridership has increased every year for the last 10 years, with the exception of 2007, when fares increased by 25 cents. And there was a 24 percent increase in ridership last fiscal year.

Photos:  Caroline Losneck

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