Maine operators launch campaign opposing transit deal

PORTLAND, Maine – Four Portland-area motorcoach operators have launched a campaign challenging a contract between the University of Southern Maine and a local transit agency that they say undercuts private businesses and wastes taxpayer money.

The operators, all United Motorcoach Association members, contend that the agreement between the university and the Greater Portland Transit District (Metro) to shuttle students to the school’s Gorham campus requires “taxpayers to spend several million dollars on new buses and operational costs.”

The operators — VIP Tour & Charter Bus Co., Northeast Charter & Tour Co., Cyr Bus Line and Custom Coach and Limousine – held a press conference recently to unveil Taxpayers for Wise Transit Spending, a campaign to pressure the university to cancel its contract with Metro and consider student shuttle bids from private companies.

“We are not against public transit at all, but it needs to be practical,” Gregg Isherwood, owner of Custom Coach and Limousine, said at the news conference.

The company has a six-year contract with the university to provide shuttle service, but it ends next year. Bus companies were never asked if they could provide service similar to Metro’s, Isherwood said.

“We fail to see how the public is benefiting from this,” he said.

Start-up costs for the new service have been estimated at $4.5 million, including the purchase of eight new buses, with 80 percent of it funded by the Federal Transit Administration.

The operators said private bus companies that pay local and state taxes could provide more efficient transportation less expensively, but they wind up losers in this situation.

Isherwood, who has 65 employees, said his company has about 40 buses and pays more than $80,000 in taxes that include excise taxes on buses. He said he wants to work with the university and Gorham, and he could open his service to the public “for millions less.”

In a joint statement, Metro and the university 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.

The university will continue to pay private coach companies to transport sports teams and for chartered trips, business worth $266,000 in 2017.

The operators said they have no immediate plans to file a lawsuit, and they apparently don’t have the option of filing a complaint with the FTA over charter service rule violations.

Instead, they are planning an extensive campaign to convince politicians, university leaders, students and taxpayers that the agreement is a waste of public funds.

Ken Presley, vice president of industry relations and COO of UMA, said the situation in Maine isn’t a violation of the federal charter service rule that prohibits public-transit agencies from using taxpayer funds to compete with private bus companies.

But he said the issue is important because “there has been a trend recently where we have seen transits incorporating charter service into scheduled service routes. When they do that, it is no longer charter.”

“While it’s not against the law, do local citizens really want to use their tax dollars to needlessly harm businesses?” Presley asked. “With no legal relief, the guys decided to band together to see if they could sway public opinion. That’s where we are now.”

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