In Maine’s largest county, public transportation options are slim to none.
Presque Isle resident Marie Faggiole (right) gets a sendoff from her next door neighbor as Aroostook Regional Transportation System Inc. bus driver Mike Daigle waits for her in Presque Isle on Wednesday. Credit: Paul Bagnall / The Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Aroostook Regional Transportation System’s new executive director has big ideas for expanding bus services across Aroostook County.

Micah Desmond took the helm of the Presque Isle-based transportation service in January, after serving for eight years as Much of his project and staffing management experience comes from being director of support services for eight years at Cary Medical Center in Caribou.

In Maine’s largest county, public transportation options are slim to none. Presque Isle attempted a solution with The Loop bus service, but the pandemic killed ridership and the effort folded. Growing Aroostook Regional Transportation will benefit the entire county, including people in outlying, more rural communities, Desmond said.

“I’ve lived here my whole life and there’s more and more of a need that I am seeing on a regular basis,” Desmond said. “One of the toughest barriers that we find is that it’s such a large region.”

An average of 120 to 135 passengers use the system daily. Aroostook Regional Transportation System has 22 full-time employees and six volunteer drivers who handle 20 buses and vans. The ride service is available Monday through Friday.

Many riders are seniors and people with disabilities, Desmond said. Buses are stationed in Houlton, Caribou and Presque Isle. The service also provides three bus rides per day for the Central Aroostook Association, which serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Aroostook Regional Transportation System’s new executive director, Micah Desmond, is seen at work in his office located at 24 Houlton Road in Presque Isle on Wednesday. Credit: Paul Bagnall / The Star-Herald

But Desmond wants the system to do more. Many Aroostook County residents live in communities that have lost convenience and other stores in recent years, so people need to travel for necessities, he said. He thinks Aroostook Regional can serve more rural parts of The County. 

One of Desmond’s goals is to boost general public transportation, like driving veterans to medical appointments and bringing residents from other areas like the St. John Valley to Presque Isle to shop. He also plans to expand service to weekends in some communities.

To accomplish that, three more buses and three more vans will be purchased later this year and the system will hire four additional employees, Desmond said.  

“We cover Aroostook County pretty well, I think. Our main goal is to be able to offer more than just one day a week to a lot of these places,” he said. “Madawaska, Grand Isle, Van Buren come in one day a week, and they really need two days a week.”

Desmond is exploring grants to help cover expansion and operational costs. 

He is working on a grant proposal with the Maine Department of Transportation’s Workforce Transportation Program, a pilot effort to transport mill and plant employees to their worksites. The $750,000 grant would allow the hiring and training of two new drivers and vans to serve local workers living in rural communities.

The organization also has applied for a Betterment Fund grant, working with Aroostook County Action Program and Homeless Services of Aroostook, to transport people experiencing homelessness to the Hope and Prosperity Resource Center in Presque Isle. Funds would be used for operational costs and fuel, Desmond said. 

If the grants are awarded, Aroostook Regional Transportation would be able to implement their expansions by summer and fall of this year.

Desmond has ridden with several drivers and has gotten to know their routes. He has started working with the Maine Transit Association to research grant funding and policy procedures to see how to boost local transportation.

Despite the pandemic, Aroostook Regional Transportation maintained its tenured staff and didn’t see a lot of turnover, Desmond said. Some drivers have worked for more than a decade.

Drivers put in considerable road time to transport residents from surrounding rural communities to Houlton, Caribou or Presque Isle, and often stop along the way to pick up more passengers.

They track their routes via tablets, but internet coverage is sometimes spotty. A Rural Transportation Assistance Program grant approved April 13 allowed the organization to put signal boosters on its buses to mitigate that problem.

Desmond hopes more people see the value of Aroostook Regional Transportation.

“Most people in Aroostook County, they think of ARTS as taking their grandmother to the grocery store,” Desmond said. “For me, it was a good introduction to what we actually do and the amount of people we actually service.”