Portland Press Herald, 12-22-17

Commentary: Bus companies oppose Portland Metro's bid for more taxpayer dollars

Portland Metro has proposed a solution to a problem that actually does not exist. (Link to Press Herald)

Cyr Bus Line, Northeast Charter & Tour Co., Custom Coach & Limousine and VIP Tour & Charter Bus Co. are united in our objection to Portland Metro’s faulty plan to seek millions more every year in local, state and federal taxpayer dollars. We also object to the University of Southern Maine’s complicity in the scheme.

Metro doesn’t pay taxes. A recent Press Herald editorial (Dec. 11) that supported Metro’s naked grab for more subsidies made ill-informed proclamations about what taxpaying bus companies cannot accomplish in the marketplace. Unfortunately, the editorial board reached its conclusions without first accepting an offer to discuss our ample ability to solve local transportation challenges efficiently and cost-effectively.

In its lack of interest, the Press Herald is matched by USM, which accepted Metro’s offer to replace an efficient shuttle service that taxpaying bus companies have provided for more than 30 years. The university did so without bothering to ask us if better and less-costly solutions are possible.

In other words, two organizations with a professed reverence for knowledge, the newspaper and the university, decided that this initiative didn’t merit a full exploration of the facts. Too bad. It will cost the taxpayers dearly.

The editorial asked, “What comes first? Supply or demand? Service or riders?” That betrays a profound lack of understanding about real world conditions. Both riders for whom USM seeks to provide service (the students) and the service itself (a nonstop shuttle exclusive to students) already exist, and have for many years. If USM wants to increase access to public transportation for students and faculty, then USM, not taxpayers, should fund the expansion. Or, simply open the current shuttle to the general public, to which, ironically, the university has been adamantly opposed for decades.

(Incidentally, USM’s mission is to educate students and provide services to facilitate that education. If it’s now pushing non-educational services for constituencies other than its students, perhaps the university should inform the people of Maine that it has a new mission.)

Consider several facts.

First, the current cost for the USM shuttle is estimated at $390,000, paid to a local, taxpaying company, unsubsidized by taxpayer dollars.

Second, the projected cost to add the Husky Line and transfer the student shuttle to Metro is at least $6 million in the first year, paid by local, state and federal taxpayers. USM, another tax-exempt entity, will pay an estimated $400,000.

Third, Metro claims that nearly 85 percent of the ridership on the Husky Line will come from USM, which will pay only 22 percent of the cost. (Guess who pays the rest?) That doesn’t include more than $4 million for new buses.

Metro estimates 400,000 boardings annually. USM boardings for the past three years are under 100,000 annually. Over the past six years USM reduced service in the evenings and cut the summer schedule completely, because of low ridership. These hard numbers should alarm taxpayers, and so should Metro’s “cook the books” claim that student ridership will magically skyrocket by a factor of four.

Finally, if increased service for students is USM’s goal, a taxpaying contractor could double the current service for an estimated $800,000. In addition, a taxpaying company buys its own buses, relieving the taxpayers of that unnecessary burden. That is a far cry from the estimated $6 million it will cost the taxpayer if Metro takes over.

USM currently offers heavily discounted Metro passes, for which demand is ridiculously low. Yet Metro proposes to give USM students and faculty 8,000 “free” passes, at the expense of the taxpayer. Yes, one slick accounting trick allows Metro to claim significantly inflated ridership numbers, thus increasing their access to taxpayer subsidies, thus allowing USM to avoid the inconvenience of seeing if the private sector might do a better job for less.

Metro proposed a solution to a problem that does not exist. Both USM and the Press Herald placed no value on fully exploring all the facts relevant to the ill-conceived proposal. Both decided that a public/private partnership wasn’t worth talking about, even though such a partnership has worked well for more than 30 years.

Well, one fact nobody can ignore. Tax time is right around the corner, and when writing checks to the town, to Maine Revenue Services and to the Internal Revenue Service, Maine taxpayers will angrily wonder why tax bills are so high. Blind obedience to expanding government agencies, without first responsibly asking hard questions, is one very unfortunate explanation.