The DASH bus pulling out of the Rockland Ferry Terminal parking lot (Photo by Andy O’Brien)
The DASH bus pulling out of the Rockland Ferry Terminal parking lot (Photo by Andy O’Brien)
If you’ve been out and about in Rockland and Belfast this summer, you may have noticed a little red bus cruising around. Midcoast Public Transportation, which is a program of Waldo County Community Action Partners (Waldo CAP), began its Downtown Area Shuttle (DASH) service in Rockland in May and in Belfast a few weeks ago. For retired newspaper reporter George Chappell of Rockland, the new service has been a blessing. The 81-year-old Grace Street resident says he stopped driving a year ago, but since the service started he can walk right across the street to get on a bus and run errands.

“It was a godsend for me when this bus was introduced because I was walking everywhere and sometimes that’s not comfortable,” said Chappell. “I take it to the grocery store. I go out to appointments at Pen Bay. They’re very accommodating.”

A one-way ticket costs $2 and the buses run every hour, Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. The Belfast DASH bus, which replaced the old Belfast Shopper, departs from Belfast Center on Field Street and makes 12 other stops including The Belfast Co-op, Waldo County General Hospital, Belfast Hannaford, and Renys. The Rockland line runs from Pen Bay Medical Center to the Walmart in Thomaston, making stops at eight spots around town. For passengers who don’t live near a stop, the bus can make stops within 3/4 of a mile of the route, provided that riders call two days in advance. So far, Rockland’s DASH buses have provided 263 rides in May and 402 in July.

Prior to the DASH service, public transportation in the midcoast had mostly been focused on providing rides for seniors and people with disabilities. A very limited public bus ran in Belfast for many years, but daily bus service in Knox County ended in the late 1950s. In 2013, the Midcoast Transit Committee commissioned a survey of 700 Knox County residents and found that 90 percent thought the time was right to consider expanded public transit and 60 percent said they would use it. A consultant initially examined four different options for running a bus service from Camden to Thomaston, but it recommended a Rockland-centric service as the most cost-effective model, based on population density and need.

The study collected dust for a number of years until Waldo CAP picked it up last year and used it as a guide for the downtown bus services funded with Federal Transit Administration money. Steffanie Pyle, the community engagement facilitator with Mid-Coast Public Transportation, said the goal was to provide bus service to the whole community and not just for people with no other transportation options.

“In this approach of rethinking how we’re looking at public transit and how we can service Rockland and the greater area, let’s look at this more community wide and see how it can be beneficial to the community as a whole,” said Pyle.

But Pyle said that there’s also a financial need to run an all-inclusive public bus because Waldo CAP’s on-demand service was extremely expensive and “incredibly unsustainable.” She said that seniors and people with disabilities covered by MaineCare can still get a voucher through Waldo CAP to cover half the cost of a taxi ride, but that the nonprofit hopes to move as many people as they can onto the DASH service.

“We’re not leaving anyone high and dry, but if we don’t figure out a better way to do this, then it’s not going to be there are at all,” said Pyle. “I think people are starting to get used to it. They’re starting to understand that this isn’t really any different. It just might take them longer to get to where they’re going.”

In 2016, Waldo CAP took over public transportation services in the midcoast after Coastal Trans Inc. found it was no longer financially feasible to provide rides to low-income and disabled riders in the region.  At the time, former MCH Executive Director Lee Karker, who oversaw Coastal Trans at the time, noted that Maine spends the second lowest per capita of any state in the country on public transportation, despite the intense need for ride services. 

Pyle said that the organization will be evaluating the success of the service in the next six months to a year, but it ultimately hopes to extend it to Rockport, Camden and surrounding rural areas.

Rockland Main Street Executive Director Gordon Page says the new program could be a valuable economic development tool. “Art brings young people, culture and restaurants bring young people, and so does public transportation,” said Page. “My interest in this from a downtown perspective is in building community through this public transportation. In the downtown industry, we know that community development leads to economic development.”