PORTLAND — Major changes could be on the horizon for area bus riders.
At four recent meetings in Falmouth, Portland and Westbrook, staff members from the Greater Portland Transit District offered updates on ongoing developments within the organization, including proposals to expand METRO service to three northern communities, consolidate with two southern communities, and improve the rider experience through real-time arrival information and additional bus shelters.
The informational meetings are a new approach, said Greg Jordan, METRO general manager. The events, which will be held at least annually, are meant to solicit rider feedback and keep the public apprised of ongoing developments, he said.
The biggest development is a potential expansion of bus service into Cumberland, Freeport and Yarmouth. The topic will hopefully be the subject of a joint town meeting later this month or in early June, Jordan said.
The meeting will discuss a research report by METRO on the potential costs and opportunities for expanding the service into those towns, and serves as a followup to a five-town meeting last September that introduced the concept. The report is optimistic, Jordan said.
If there is support from the towns for a trial service, METRO will seek federal grant money through the state and Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System (PACTS). The current proposal calls seeks approximately $660,000 through a Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality grant provided by the National Highway Administration, and $200,000 from PACTS.
If all goes well, METRO is targeting July 1, 2015, as a start date for the expansion, which will give municipalities time to budget for the new service and METRO time to acquire four mid-sized vehicles.
The mid-sized vehicles are less expensive than typical transit buses and “more suited to highway travel,” Jordan said.
“If this goes forward, it’s going to be a great thing to connect these cities together and it will make good use of the Park and Ride facility in Yarmouth,” he said.
In the meantime, METRO is studying the possibility of consolidating its service with the South Portland Bus Service, and Zoom Shuttle Bus, which serves Biddeford and Saco.
A preliminary report by Southern Maine Area Regional Transit is optimistic, Jordan said.
“It’s looking pretty good,” he said. “The benefits of consolidating these three agencies are pretty significant for the passenger, and that is the most important thing.”
A final report will delve more deeply into the financial aspects of consolidation, but Jordan said he anticipates a merger will improve efficiency and costs.
“We have a lot of duplication in terms of routes and administration,” he said. “We’ll be able to do more with less.”
METRO is also planning to add 13 shelters throughout the service area in the coming year.
Five of the new shelters will be added to Congress Street by the fall, to dovetail with the city’s efforts to develop the Congress Street Bus Priority Corridor, which calls for the removal of some traffic signals and bus “pull-outs.”
Some of those shelters will eventually include electronic message boards that will provide “real-time bus arrival information” to riders, Jordan said. The same information will be available to riders through smart phones, text messages and on METRO’s website.
The GPS-based program will also provide METRO staff with real-time positions of the entire fleet and allow for in-depth studies of bus routes.
The city and METRO are also planning a new service to help connect downtown with the city’s transportation depots at Thompson’s Point, Casco Bay Lines on Commercial Street, and possibly Portland International Jetport.
The service, called HUBLink, would offer high-frequency transit between those locations via “the region’s most important transit corridor, Congress Street,” Jordan said.
It would be partly funded through a tax-increment financing district established at the Thompson’s Point development, he said.
The various developments are the result of “marching orders from the board,” Jordan said.
“They want to see transit advance substantially in the region, and the various councils in the region are pretty much on board with that,” he said. “We all want to see transit improve and become a much more viable alternative for the residents out there.”
METRO serves three municipalities: Falmouth, Portland and Westbrook. The agency’s 32 buses are boarded 1.5 million times a year. The group 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 percent 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.