Costs rising in Portland, Falmouth, Westbrook as Metro 're-imagines' bus service

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PORTLAND — The Greater Portland Transit District, which operates the Metro bus service, is changing the way member municipalities are asked to pay for their share of the public transit cost.

On Oct. 25, Metro directors unanimously approved a preliminary fiscal year 2019 budget of $11.4 million, and how much Portland, Falmouth, and Westbrook will pay for service next year. The final budget is expected to be approved by February 2019.

General Manager Greg Jordan said the municipalities will be charged not by revenue mile (the number  of miles buses travel in a community), but by revenue hour (the amount of time service takes).

How much fare revenue is applied to each municipality is also changing. Jordan said fare revenue used to go “into a big pot,” but now will be based on ridership patterns. That means revenue generated in Portland, for example, would reduce that city’s contribution.

Jordan said he hopes the new system will encourage municipal officials to work with Metro to speed up transit service in the communities.

“What both of these do is incentivize people to make improvements to the system and reduce the burden on the taxpayer,” he said.

All three municipalities are on board with the changes and their assessments.

On Nov. 14, the Falmouth Town Council reviewed, but didn’t take action on, its allocation of nearly $180,000, an increase of 8.9 percent.

“I will be supporting this, because I have complete … trust in the budget they have put together and the competency in Metro,” Falmouth Councilor Hope Cahan, a Metro board member, said at the meeting.

Five days later, the Westbrook City Council, with no discussion, approved its allocation of more than $774,000, up 20.4 percent from this year.

Jordan said the three members have a right to reject their allocations – something that he doesn’t recall ever happening – within 30 days of receiving the preliminary numbers. The deadline would have been Dec. 1.

Jordan said Portland generally does not formally act on the topic.

Much of Westbrook’s increased contribution represents increased programs and costs, as well as a 64 percent increase in Metro service in the city. The Transit West project in Westbrook and Gorham introduced Metro’s Route 3,  connecting the Riverton section of Portland through Westbrook to the Maine Mall in South Portland, and the Husky Line,  connecting the University of Southern Maine campuses in Portland and Gorham.

Portland’s increase of nearly $78,000, or 2.8 percent, to $2.7 million is also due to increased programs and costs, which can be tied to the Transit West project to a lesser extent.

“I am good with that,” City Manager Jon Jennings said. “We have to pay our fair share so long as it is our fair share.”

Falmouth will pay more largely because of the phasing out of a federal grant that was received close to a decade ago to launch Metro Route 7, which serves Route 1 and select trips to Town Landing Market and OceanView Retirement Community.

While much of Metro’s public transit improvements were focused on Westbrook in 2018, Falmouth and downtown Portland will be focuses in 2019. Metro lists working with Falmouth to improve transit service there as one of its top objectives for 2019.

Metro will also “re-imagine and restructure” how public transit on the Portland peninsula can be improved. Improvements will be implemented in mid-2020. In addition, Metro will look at ways to take the Metro BREEZ, which serves Brunswick, Freeport and Yarmouth, from pilot project to a permanent part of the system.

“Those conversations are just beginning,” Jordan said. “We want to see how we can improve the frequency of service and look at innovative ways to help the more outlaying areas to increase ridership.”

Staff writer David Harry contributed to this story. Michael Kelley can be reached at 780-9106 or mkelley@keepmecurrent.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mkelleynews.

The Route 1 bus loop, which services Portland’s peninsula, is one of Metro’s focus areas for 2019.

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