RTP, METRO clash over federal funds

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PORTLAND — Increasing budget pressure is pitting two local transportation providers against each other. 

Leaders of METRO and the Regional Transportation Program, a non-profit agency that serves elderly and disabled riders in Cumberland County, are clashing over the distribution of funds from an urban transportation grant program administered by the Federal Transit Administration.

In 2009, nearly $2.4 million in funds were divided among seven different entities, including two nonprofits: RTP, which received $175,000, and the York County Community Action Corp., which received $72,000.

The funds are allocated annually by the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System. Last week, a PACTS subcommittee discussed how the funds are being distributed and used. 

METRO officials are looking to exclude the two nonprofits during the next budget cycle. RTP officials say the funding is key to maintaining vital services for some elderly riders.

RTP is hired by the city to provide para-transit service in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act to people who cannot independently ride public transportation. The company must provide transportation to disabled individuals within a 3/4-mile radius of a public bus stop. That service is funded partly through a $2.50 bus fare and operating agreements with member municipalities.

But some of that funding goes toward expanded services, like the Shopper’s Express, which RTP says is a vital service for senior citizens who cannot get to a bus stop, but do not qualify for ADA transportation. 

RTP Executive Director Sara Trafton said federal urban transit funds allow RTP to operate the Shopper’s Express, which provides door-to-door grocery trips for between 125 and 150 people in Portland, South Portland, Westbrook and Falmouth. Any decrease in funding, she said, would force RTP to give priority to individuals who need transportation to medical appointments above elderly people who need groceries. 

“It’s a terrible position to be in,” Trafton said. “We have seniors who tell us that this is the only way they can get their groceries. We know it’s a critical need. Our priority is to continue that (shopper) service.” 

But budget pressures are growing on public transportation that relies on the funds, a pool that shrunk from $2.7 million in 2008 to $2.4 million last year.

Last year, METRO received $1.4 million, South Portland got $167,000, Casco Bay Island Transit District received $415,000 and Biddeford-Saco Old Orchard Beach Transit got $160,000. 

METRO General Manager David Redlefsen questioned whether RTP was spending its federal funds appropriately and whether it was making an effort to collect money for its riders. 

RTP uses taxi cabs to transport disabled riders when there are no buses or volunteer vehicles available. It can charge riders $2.50 for each trip and the remaining balance for the cab ride is billed to the municipalities. However, RTP does not sign contracts with cab companies, so drivers are under no obligation to collect the fare for RTP and, if they do, there is no reporting requirement.  

RTP officials acknowledge the difficulty of recovering cab fares, but said their use of taxis has declined this year due to an increase in volunteer drivers. Also, RTP officials said the funding challenge is operating the para-transit buses, which serve disabled people along METRO’s fixed route.

Redlefsen, however, is pushing for funds to be shared by the groups directly affiliated with municipalities. 

“Instead of seven-way pizza, there would be five slices,” he said. “It would leave more money for all of the (municipal) providers.”  

Redlefsen said he wants PACTS to inspect RTP’s books prior to next year’s funding cycle, so officials can have a complete picture of RTP’s revenues and expenses. 

A subcommittee will make a recommendation  on how to allocate funds to the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System’s Transit Committee. Using the Transit Committee’s recommendation, the PACTS Policy Committee will have the final say about funding allocations.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net