Portland-area bus service seeks to expand into 5 northern suburbs

Posted Oct. 01, 2013, at 2:17 p.m.
This University of Southern Maine photograph depicts a greater Portland METRO bus headed for Congress Street.
USM | BDN
This University of Southern Maine photograph depicts a greater Portland METRO bus headed for Congress Street.

CUMBERLAND, Maine — The Greater Portland Transit District is eyeing a potential expansion of its METRO bus service to five towns north of the city by summer 2014.

First, however, METRO needs elected officials to get on board.

Greg Jordan, METRO’s general manager, made his pitch Monday during a meeting with officials from the towns of Chebeague Island, Cumberland, Falmouth, Freeport, North Yarmouth and Yarmouth at Val Halla Golf and Recreation Center.

The meeting, which included all the town managers and most town councilors, also focused on the potential of regionalization between towns — sharing departments, assets and initiatives to cut costs.

Jordan, who joined METRO in June, said the transportation agency is investigating a grant through the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program, which would fund a two- to three-year pilot study of expanded bus service in the region.

The exact amount of grant funding is unknown, but it is less than $1 million, Jordan said. It would cover 80 percent of the project’s cost, but will also require the towns to split the remaining 20 percent. Jordan said it’s impossible to know how much each town’s share might be.

Jordan said the next step is to meet with managers from the towns not already served by METRO — Chebeague Island, Cumberland, Freeport, North Yarmouth and Yarmouth — to “craft a couple of options.”

In December, those options would be presented during town council and Board of Selectmen meetings to see if there is support for METRO to pursue the grant.

If approved, the service could be expanded as soon as next summer.

“That’s aggressive,” Jordan said, “but I think it’s certainly doable.”

Then, over the life of the pilot study, the towns, riders and METRO would evaluate the effectiveness of the program.

Jordan acknowledged that mass transportation can result in longer commutes, “but that becomes productive time for you.”

“You can be on your iPad, reading a book, reading the paper,” he said. “Whatever it is, it’s your time, versus the pointless time of sitting in traffic.”

Toward the end of the presentation, Jordan posed a direct question to his audience — a question that went unanswered.

“Is there any objection to us moving forward with working with your staffs and developing these options?” he said.

METRO currently serves three municipalities: Falmouth, Portland and Westbrook. The agency’s 32 buses are boarded 1.5 million times a year, Jordan said.

METRO receives more than $6 million a year in revenue from a mix of sources, including federal, state and local subsidies, according to its 2013 budget. The total local subsidy was about $3 million for 2013.

The town of Falmouth pays 6 percent of the local subsidy, or about $140,000. Portland and Westbrook pay 81 and 13 percent, respectively. Last November, Falmouth voters overwhelmingly defeated a citizen’s referendum that would have ended the town’s subsidy. The vote was 5,289 to 2,223.

The estimated total for passenger fares in 2013 is $1.8 million, or about 25 percent of METRO’s operating budget.

After the presentation, Yarmouth Town Manager Nat Tupper led the group through a round-table discussion on the pros and cons of regionalizing.

Tupper said many of the communities are already sharing dozens of services, including emergency dispatching, harbor patrol, a regional crime lab and more, and he encouraged the group to identify low-hanging fruit.

Councilors and managers offered suggestions such as shared plowing, road maintenance, information technology, shoreline protection, green crab abatement and more.

Afterward, Tupper said the town managers would get together soon to discuss possibilities.

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