The Bangor City Council voted 5-4 Monday night to keep the city’s public bus hub in Pickering Square.
That outcome should at least partially settle a long-running debate about whether the Community Connector’s terminal should remain in the square or whether its routes should converge somewhere else in the city.
With the affirmative vote, city staff will now work to craft and construct a redesign of Pickering Square that moves the hub to the Water Street side of the square and separates it from the rest of the square with a landscaped buffer of vegetation. The preliminary plans call for a small building with a bathroom and waiting area that’s staffed by an attendant, as well as an overhanging shelter.
But the proposal has been divisive, drawing crowds of more than 100 people to each of the two City Council meetings at which it was discussed this month.
On Monday night, supporters of the proposal waved yellow signs imploring councilors to “Keep the Hub in the Square.” They have said that Pickering Square is the most central and accessible location for people who rely on public transportation to get around Greater Bangor, and two studies ordered by the city over the past six years have each identified Pickering Square as the best place for the hub.
The supporters have also argued that the proposal to keep the hub in the square would bring other improvements to the area, including an estimated 7,000 square feet of new pedestrian space.
“I’ve never been solely sold [that this is] the spot, but after so much information has been brought forward, it’s clear that this works,” Councilor Sarah Nichols said. “It may not be desirable for everyone, but it’s going to make our community more accessible to everyone.”
Opponents, including some property developers who have helped revitalize downtown Bangor, have argued that Pickering Square is too small to accomodate a transit hub and that the space would be best used as an open pedestrian plaza free from the noise and congestion that comes from large vehicles continually passing nearby. In previous years, opponents have also argued that the square should be converted to extra parking for downtown Bangor.
The five councilors who supported keeping the hub in Pickering Square were Nichols, Angela Okafor, Gretchen Schaefer, Laura Supica and Chairwoman Clare Davitt. The proposal was opposed by Councilors Rick Fournier, Susan Hawes, Ben Sprague and Dan Tremble.
The city has been awarded $1.29 million in federal funds to replace the old bus terminal that used to be in the nearby Pickering Square parking garage but was permanently closed last summer for a renovation that changed the location of the garage’s entrance. A temporary bus hub is now on Pickering Square, but it lacks a heated shelter or a functioning bathroom.
The city must start spending those federal dollars within four years, and Assistant City Manager Richard Cromwell has estimated that it could take more than a year to design and construct a new hub. Any plans for changes at Pickering Square would have to go back to the City Council for additional review.
Though its hub is in Bangor, the Community Connector has routes that extend into Hampden, Brewer, Veazie, Orono and Old Town.
Supporters of keeping the terminal in Pickering Square have pushed the City Council to approve the location for the new bus hub as soon as possible so that the city can commit to making other improvements to the Community Connector system that were recommended in the 2019 study from consulting firm Stantec, such as adding fixed stops, adding GPS tracking for buses and eventually extending the system’s hours.
Some opposing councilors have argued that the city should spend more time trying to identify other locations for the hub around downtown before committing to Pickering Square. Sprague last week proposed locating the bus hub on Exchange Street across from the Penobscot Judicial Center, but city staff concluded that a bus hub there would have to take the place of a municipal parking lot with 100 paid parking spaces.
Tremble, who opposed Monday night’s proposal, said that he thought the Stantec study was “a major failure” because it did not consider other possible locations for the hub around downtown. While Tremble said he supports improving the Community Connector, he thinks the city should spend another two weeks vetting other options such as the one that Sprague suggested.
“It’s unfortunate that some people have made the bus hub a litmus test of whether you’re in favor” of the bus system, Tremble said. “In my opinion, we’re settling when we pick Pickering Square. There are a lot of problems with Pickering Square.”
But Okafor countered that opponents have not managed to offer any suitable alternative locations to Pickering Square.
“I have only heard ‘Move the bus anywhere but the square,’” she said. “I have always asked where. I have not heard a viable alternative. We have a lot more things, so let’s move on to other issues of development.”
A number of Bangor residents also spoke for and against the proposal on Monday night — reciting many of the same arguments that came up at the Jan. 13 public hearing.
One opponent of the proposal, Kate Dickerson, the founder and director of the Maine Science Festival, said the city should be more focused on the long-term flood risk in Pickering Square from rising sea levels, and she asked the councilors to consider delaying the vote by six months so the city can collect more data on Community Connector ridership.
In response, Hank Garfield, a University of Maine lecturer and a supporter of keeping the hub in Pickering Square, said that the the desire to collect more data about current riders “kind of misses the point” because the city is actively trying to increase the number of people who use the bus system.
Although Sprague voted against the measure, he also said that the proposed changes to Pickering Square “will be a significant upgrade” over the current layout of the square.