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METRO to get new buses, may expand north, south

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METRO to get new buses, may expand north, south

PORTLAND — The Greater Portland Transit District, which operates the METRO bus service, will receive a $2 million federal grant to replace five aging members of its fleet, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said Monday.

The Federal Transit Administration grant will pay for 35-foot buses that run on compressed natural gas and emit less air pollution than their diesel-powered predecessors.

"With thousands of people depending on the bus to get to work and appointments, it's critical that METRO have a reliable and efficient fleet," Pingree said in a statement. "I'm glad this federal investment will help METRO modernize its vehicles and continue to offer Greater Portland an affordable, convenient, and green option for transportation."

The change isn't the only one coming to METRO.

Last year, work began on a common logo and website that will be used by the bus service and other area transit providers, including Casco Bay Lines, the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, the Regional Transportation Program, ShuttleBus-ZOOM, the South Portland Bus Service and the York County Community Action Corp.

"Within the next couple months we should have the website up," said Denise Beck, the METRO marketing director who is working with her counterparts at the other agencies to develop the joint branding campaign. In an interview last week, she said the new logo would probably debut sometime in the spring.

Meanwhile, METRO is considering expanding service to five towns, and exploring the idea of joining forces with two other bus services.

Backed by another federal transportation grant, METRO may conduct a two- to three-year pilot project that would bring buses to Chebeague Island, Cumberland, Freeport, North Yarmouth and Yarmouth. But the plan, which was presented to the towns in October, must still be vetted by each town council or board of selectmen.

A consultant also has been hired to examine the costs and feasibility of METRO, the South Portland Bus Service and ShuttleBus-ZOOM forming a single, regional transit provider. The consultant's report is expected to be complete by February, according to Greg Jordan, METRO general manager.

Any subsequent decision to consolidate would have to be approved by the directors of the each bus service, as well as by the city councils of Portland and South Portland, he added.

Such a change would be deja vu all over again.

Today, greater Portland is unlike almost every New England metropolitan area, in that it is not served by a single, regional transit provider, Jordan said. While it covers most parts of Portland, METRO provides only limited service outside the city – a single line each to Westbrook and Falmouth.

The transit district, formed in 1966, previously operated buses in South Portland, Cape Elizabeth and Yarmouth in addition to the current service. But in 1978, METRO ended Yarmouth service and Cape Elizabeth withdrew from the district. In 1983, South Portland withdrew and began its own service.

Art Handman, South Portland transportation director, said in an interview that he was open to the prospect of that city returning to a regional system, depending on the system's configuration.

The different joint plans that have been discussed "each have their advantages and disadvantages," he said, "but I would want to ensure the personalized service we provide could be maintained."

Forging a regional system is a task with which Jordan is familiar. He started at METRO in September after helping to found and then to direct a regional system in Tempe, Ariz.

"It's not about power, it's not about control. It's about integrating a network under one umbrella," he said. "When you have too many agencies doing too many things, not only is it a waste of money ... but you have a network out there isn't as good as it can be for riders."

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.