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Viewpoint: Time to improve rural public transportation

January 5, 2021 on Commentary, Opinion  By Rep. Lynne Williams

I am so pleased about my election to the Legislature, from House District 135, including the towns of Bar Harbor, Lamoine and Mount Desert. Thank you to everyone for giving me your trust and I will work hard to make that trust well-placed.

I am pleased that I have been appointed to the Transportation Committee. I am a decades-long supporter of rail, and also of increasing and improving rural public transportation. During my campaign, I posted a short commercial on Facebook that had as its tagline: “What good is a job if you can’t get there?” I will work my hardest as a legislator to increase access to rural public transportation.

Not everyone uses private vehicles to travel throughout rural Maine. Some folks don’t have reliable vehicles. Some folks choose not to drive, often due to medical reasons or aging. And, yes, there are Mainers who do not have driver’s licenses. Some had their license taken away for various infractions; others chose to never get a license for various reasons. We cannot just assume that they don’t have a right to get where they need to go.

I will work diligently to assist Downeast Transportation to obtain additional and increased funding to expand our local public transportation network. On a daily basis, I see Downeast buses driving through Bar Harbor as they bring workers to The Jackson Laboratory from towns pretty far away. But needing improved and increased public transportation in Maine’s rural communities involves much more than transit to jobs. Getting to a health care appointment is facilitated by public transportation in our district, but not in many other rural districts in the state, particularly in northern and eastern Maine. That needs to be addressed. But even in District 135, there is no evening and weekend schedule, which would support those who wish to visit friends and family or socialize in a restaurant or go to a film. Isolation, particularly in winter, is a real issue in our communities and is closely tied to the limited availability of public transportation.

As noted repeatedly by the Maine Climate Council, which met throughout 2020, there is a strong relationship between transportation and Maine’s climate issues. Transportation is responsible for 54 percent of Maine’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, and 59 percent of those emissions are from light-duty passenger cars and trucks. While the Council recognizes this data, their plan is disappointingly focused on increasing the use of electric vehicles. But if a rural resident cannot afford a reliable car of any type, they really cannot afford an electric vehicle.

Yet, it was only the report titled “Maine Youth Vision for the Maine Climate Council” that made substantive recommendations regarding rural public transportation, over and above increased electrification, as well as other recommendations that we need to take seriously. This includes an increase in funding for public transit, investing $12 per capita/year, like Vermont, rather than the less than $5 per capita/year Maine invests. The Youth Report also includes a focus on rapid bus transit in rural communities and the creation of a larger high-speed rail presence. I have already agreed to be a co-sponsor of a bill to study extending the Downeaster to Bangor. And such an extension, combined with improved rapid bus transit in our northern and eastern rural communities, will go far towards improving access to residents of those communities.

The Legislature must make a serious effort to better assist Maine’s rural citizens in accessing transportation for their everyday needs, especially those more marginalized citizens who may also be low income, senior citizens, differently abled and the like. And that transportation must address access not only to jobs and health care, but also to any other activities that improve someone’s quality of life. In short, public transportation can open up our quality of life in rural Maine, and I intend to be a part of that.

Lynne Williams is an attorney residing in Bar Harbor and a member of the Maine House of Representatives.

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