Lewiston-Auburn's Citylink bus system has been plagued by service interruptions

Jan. 9—LEWISTON — The Citylink bus service in Lewiston-Auburn has been plagued by service interruptions caused by a combination of mechanical issues and staffing shortages due to illness.

On Saturday morning, Citylink posted yet another service alert on social media. "Another illness has the system short today," the post said, meaning there would be no Main Street or Sabattus Street service. It was the ninth time Citylink had announced a service interruption since the Christmas holiday.

A few days before, the system was hit with back-to-back interruptions — first an illness resulted in a delayed start for the Sabattus Street service, then Wednesday a mechanical issue meant no downtown shuttle or Minot Avenue runs.

Citylink struggled over the holidays with the same issues, including weather that left it short of drivers.

One commenter on Facebook, referring to the uptick in illnesses causing staffing shortages, said it "might be a good idea to reinstate the mask mandate."

Lawrence Allen, transit program manager for Citylink, said this week that there have been "a rash of unrelated issues that have caught the system either short on drivers or short on equipment." He said both are common issues for transit providers across the country, but a number of incidents have "compounded in such a small window of time," causing regular interruptions.

As of Monday, Allen said the system — at least its buses — had returned to fully operating. Two more buses are ordered and coming online this summer. The lingering issue, he said, is staffing levels, which he said mirrors other businesses or services right now.

"We are one or two illnesses away from any future service interruptions," he said. "The staff have rallied whenever needed to keep the wheels turning."

He said Citylink's operator, Western Maine Transportation Services, is "doing all they can to keep service intact."

As the Twin Cities' transit system, Citylink has 10 routes requiring seven buses during peak service. Allen said service interruptions will often effect two routes due to the way routes are combined into one-hour service blocks. He said they attempt to "cover as many riders as possible when faced with an equipment or driver shortage."

According to Allen, the most-utilized routes are College Street, Mall Shuttle, Lisbon Street, and the Auburn Mall route, each with between 2,400 and 4,800 rides monthly.

The Main Street and Sabattus Street routes each have a little more than 2,000 rides monthly, while the least utilized routes are Pettengil Park, Minot Avenue, Downtown Shuttle and New Auburn, each with between 300 to 1,500 rides monthly.

The Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments, which oversees public transit in Lewiston-Auburn, conducted a transit study in 2020, and overhauled Citylink's route system in 2021.

The goal of the study was to redesign the entire system into the most convenient and efficient model possible. Citylink has been Lewiston and Auburn's primary bus service since 1976, with system hubs at Oak Street in Lewiston and Great Falls Plaza in Auburn.

While two more buses are coming, Citylink has not avoided supply chain issues either. When two buses were totaled in late 2021 — one was hit by a car that ran through a red light, another was backed into by a snowplow at the mall — three buses were purchased for 2022 to fill the gaps. When one of them arrived, one of the windows was broken and couldn't be replaced for four months.

"That bus was the puzzle piece that allowed us to resume a full schedule of service just after Labor Day in 2022," Allen said.

When something breaks on a bus, it's a lot more complicated to repair due to specialty parts. Recently, Allen said, one bus had a brake issue and replacement parts were delayed. Another had an electronic switch that operates the door and handicap accessible ramp that failed. Yet another had a "body controller" that failed resulting in the brake lights not working properly.

Public feedback so far has been mild, with most people being understanding of the issues, Allen said.

"I think most people understand the underlying issues most service providers are having," he said. "Our drivers have a fantastic rapport with the majority of riders so any time there are interruptions, the drivers interactions with the public have helped get the message out as clear and understandable as possible."