South Portland eyes environmental initiatives

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council indicated support Monday for environmental initiatives including the lease of electric vehicles and hiring a full-time sustainability coordinator.

Councilors also received an update on the possible consolidation of bus systems in greater Portland.

City Manager Jim Gailey presented the council with highlights from a 202-page climate action plan, a document that outlines the city’s goals for becoming more energy efficient and reducing its environmental impact.

The plan stems from the city’s signing of the U.S. Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement in 2007. 

Since 2007, Gailey said in the council workshop, the city has taken many steps toward reducing the city’s carbon footprint. Accomplishments include adding longer-lasting LED light fixtures at Mill Creek Park and in Knightville, putting solar panels on the Planning and Development building, and installing an electric vehicle charging station at the Community Center. 

The plan outlines several goals for the City Council to consider. Notable ideas include a possible solar farm, which Gailey said could be ready to come before the council in the next few months, more LED streetlights, the trial lease of three electric vehicles for city staff, and adding a new part-time city employee charged solely with increasing sustainability.

As part of the plan, Gailey said the city will see its first capital improvement budget specifically for sustainable, “green” initiatives next spring. The plan also highlights behavioral changes city staff can make, such as biking and carpooling to work, and consolidating staff electronics.

Councilors supported the goals, and even suggested the sustainable position should be full-time.

“It does mean a lot of savings for us in the future, and it’s where our community should be going,” Councilor Patti Smith said, adding she hoped the new staffer could be an advocate for sustainability in Augusta. 

In terms of immediate action, Gailey asked the council to consider leasing three electric vehicles to replace older cars. His data suggested the city could lease one for 36 months for $10,000, and would save on annual gas consumption, oil changes and maintenance.

“It speaks volumes to our residents,” Gailey said. “I think it makes a statement. We’re trying to be a leader.”

Councilors also supported the idea, but asked Gailey to provide more detailed information on potential savings in a future workshop.

Gailey said staff would tweak the climate action plan document with the council’s suggestions, and bring it back to the council for adoption in early October.

SMART bus system

The possible bus system consolidation is known as the Southern Maine Area Transportation initiative, or SMART.

In July 2013, the Greater Portland Council of Governments and the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation Systems requested a feasibility assessment for merging the three public bus providers in greater Portland.

Existing systems are the METRO system, the South Portland Bus Service, and the Shuttle-bus Zoom with access to Biddeford, Saco, Old Orchard Beach and Scarborough. 

A consultant’s study completed earlier this year of several merging options concluded there is a range of possible cost savings.

Representatives of GPCOG and METRO on Monday asked for the council’s support for the next phase of action: continued study of merging providers by a committee made up of one elected official from each municipality. That committee would sort out issues including how to allocate municipal costs, and how to govern the system.

With input from consultants and providers, the committee would then present a final option, and invite municipalities to formally implement a merger, possibly early next year.

Councilors agreed the city should continue participating in the study, but were unconvinced a merged bus system would provide the most return on investment for South Portland residents.

“To consolidate just to consolidate if it’s not going to be better service … it just doesn’t make sense,” Councilor Linda Cohen said. 

Councilor Maxine Beecher reminded councilors that South Portland was originally part of METRO, but separated in the 1980s because of inadequate service and mounting costs. 

“I am willing to sit through another process so that I can be assured equality exists,” Beecher said. “That really concerns me.”

Smith also wondered if the continued study could project growth of ridership, especially if Sunday service is included and transfer costs are reduced. 

Once the study is complete, the council would have another opportunity to decide whether the city wants to participate in the regional transit group. 

Shelby Carignan can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow her on Twitter: @shelbycarignan.