Portland-area public transit planners urged to take 30-year view

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PORTLAND — Officials from the entire realm of public transportation in greater Portland are taking a long, hard look down the road.

As announced at a March 7 news conference at the Casco Bay Island ferry terminal, Transit Tomorrow is a regional collaboration aiming to create a 30-year plan for the best and most efficient use of all manner of public transportation from Brunswick to Biddeford.

The planning will determine how to better link services and communities while leveraging federal and state funding.

Stewarded by the Greater Portland Council of Governments and Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, which merged two years ago, the planning involves seven regional transportation agencies and includes rail and ferry services.

At the news conference, Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner Bruce Van Note applauded the concept.

“Think long-term, don’t be paralyzed by it,” Van Note said, as he noted how a younger demographic is demanding public transportation that also provides Wi-Fi and other features that allow riders to work while they travel.

Kristina Egan, GPCOG executive director, said the long-range plan is expected to come together in about 18 months and will include targeting growth areas for service expansions.

On the whole, ridership on regional public transportation has increased from 3.7 million in 2013 to 4.3 million in 2017, according to PACTS. Within the agencies, the largest share of users remains the Metro bus system serving Portland and communities as far away as Gorham and Brunswick.

Metro added service to Gorham and the University of Southern Maine last August, and a new route that runs along the western edge of Portland, through Westbrook, and on to the Maine Mall in South Portland.

The Zoom line from Biddeford to downtown Portland, and the Regional Transportation Program service connecting Bridgton and Portland, have also seen ridership increases in the last five years.

The Lake Region Explorer has gone from 6,300 to 10,400 boardings in four years.

Zoom ridership has increased 4 percent since 2018 and now represents 8 percent of the regional usage measured by PACTS.

More people are riding the rails and ferries, too.

John Melrose, chairman of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, said Amtrak Downeaster service from Brunswick to Boston had 550,000 riders last year. He said a primary challenge is getting people to use the service for local transportation.

“There are too many waits at sidings, too little parking in some places,” Melrose added, noting an additional 6 miles of double tracks south of Portland could make the Downeaster more attractive as a commuter train to Portland.

Hank Berg, general manager of Casco Bay Island Transit District, said ferry passenger traffic increases at least 2 percent annually, and freight traffic as much as 10 percent. About 36,000 vehicles use the service each year.

“We are quite literally the lifeline to the islands,” Berg said.

The total picture is one Portland City Councilor Belinda Ray – who is also president of the Greater Portland Transit District/Metro board – said can improve economic opportunities and sustainable living and promote affordable housing throughout the region. But collaboration is critical, she said, to getting the funding to implement plans.

In moving forward, South Portland Mayor Claude Morgan, also representing his city’s bus service, said planners can learn from the past.

South Portland finished its streetcar lines about a century ago, and restored bus service in 1983. Both systems succeeded despite initial criticism, Morgan said.

“We have to demonstrate new projects are no less realistic,” he said, “than those taken on by our parents and grandparents.”

David Harry can be reached at 780-9092 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Vehicles board the Machigonne II ferry in Portland. Casco Bay Lines ridership increases about 2 percent annually.The Amtrak Downeaster departs for Boston from its most northern point, Brunswick. The service attracted 550,000 riders last year.

Bus service expansion in South Portland has included this Mill Creek hub at Thomas and Ocean streets.

Maine Transportation Commissioner Bruce Van Note advised regional planners to think long term but focus on short-term goals, March 7, at the Casco Bay Lines ferry terminal in Portland.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.