South Portland under pressure to upgrade bus fare technology

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Fares for some city bus riders who transfer to or from METRO buses could double, unless the South Portland Bus Service makes fare technology updates compatible with changes planned by the Greater Portland Transit District.

If left unaddressed, the increase for cash-paying senior citizens and riders with disabilities would also be a violation of federal law

According to Joshua Reny, the assistant city manager and director of economic development, METRO is planning to replace tickets with smartcard and app-based fare technology in the fall.

The South Portland Bus Service Citizens Advisory Committee, formed less than two months ago, met April 29 to discuss the possibility of adopting the technology  to ease the cost on those who transfer between METRO and the South Portland bus line.

For the first time in 10 years, METRO’s base fare is expected to increase from $1.50 to $2 on Jan. 1, 2020. At that point, Reny said, METRO would stop accepting 10-ride tickets and monthly passes.

People who pay cash and want to transfer between METRO and the South Portland bus line will have to pay the fare for both trips: $1.50 for the South Portland bus and another $1.50 for METRO. For seniors and the disabled who are either unwilling or unable to get a smartcard or app, the cost would be 75 cents for the South Portland bus line and an additional $1 to transfer to METRO.

“If we adopt the technology, people can just swipe their smartcard and it opens up a 90-minute transfer window to access any bus, and people won’t pay a double fare,” Reny said. “But we’re trying to be sensitive to folks who are unwilling or not otherwise able to get a smartcard.”

METRO announced its automated fare policy changes on March 8, and held several meetings from March 12-26 to hear from the public, businesses and social service agencies on how the changes may impact them. Officials from South Portland Bus Services did not attend the most recent meeting on March 26.

“We raised that equity issue of riders who pay cash, and got the Greater Portland Council of Governments to perform a fair equity analysis, which would look at the demographics of who might be taking such a shuttle fare. They said they’d get on it right away but gave us no time,” Arthur Handman, director of South Portland Bus Service, said. “We also hope to work on some formalized agreement between all bus parties in Maine regarding how we’ll handle transfers and other bus matters in the future.”

According to City Councilor and advisory committee Chairwoman Katherine Lewis, more information on the April 26 METRO meeting needs to be brought back to the panel before it can analyze the logistics and costs that come with switching to the new technology.

“Once we know more about the fair equity analysis we requested from GPCOG, we can start crafting a proposal for the City Council to consider,” Reny said. “What you’ll likely find if we adopt this technology is that the small amount of people who do transfer regularly are probably going to see the financial benefits in making the switch, and it won’t cost much for us to transfer over.”

Failure to get on board with the technology update, which would force riders who transfer to pay more, could also place the city in legal jeopardy.

Public transportation agencies that receive funding from the Federal Transit Administration must offer half or reduced fares to people with disabilities and seniors during off-peak hours for fixed-route services.

Seven of Maine’s transit regions receive FTA funding, including South Portland and METRO, which offers routes around Portland, Westbrook, Falmouth and the Maine Mall area of South Portland. All are individually responsible for following FTA guidelines and rules.

Krysteana Scribner can be reached at kscribner@theforecaster.net or 780-9094. Follow her on Twitter: @krysteana2016.

The South Portland Bus Service Transit Hub at Mill Creek. As the Greater Portland Transit District moves forward with changes to its fare policy and technology, fares for riders who pay with cash could double if they transfer between METRO and the South Portland bus line.

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