SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors Monday night decided not to consider merging the city bus service with the Greater Portland Transit District’s METRO service.
Mayor Linda Cohen said her mother fought for the South Portland transit system well into her 70s and 80s. “She depended on the services, and that history means something to me. South Portland is doing fine on its own,” Cohen said.
The city bus service and METRO were linked previously, but the city left the arrangement in 1983 due to concerns about cost inequity, according to METRO General Manager Greg Jordan.
Jordan presented the new merger proposal at a City Council workshop, where without a vote councilors declined to schedule further discussion or more the proposal forward to a formal meeting.
Arthur Handman, South Portland transportation director, spoke vehemently against the proposal, saying the merger would hurt city bus drivers by threatening their seniority and job security.
“What’s the purpose of all this?” Handman asked, adding employees with decades of service with the city are worried about their seniority. “Our drivers did not ask for this and I don’t want to cause them any pain.”
He urged the council to resolve the question quickly.
After the meeting, Handman said the council’s decision speaks for itself, and added the staff of 15 drivers, one mechanic, and an operations supervisor would be pleased.
The city is looking to improve service, including looking for underserved areas and expanding routes, he said.
The annual cost to operate the South Portland bus service is $1.7 million, and revenue is about $1.2 million, leaving a net cost of $730,000, according to the 2018 budget.
Handman noted South Portland buses travel into Portland, and about 100 people each day transfer to METRO buses. He said in a letter to the council that under a merger, control would be ceded to METRO’s board of directors, and there is no compelling argument service would be improved.
Jordan, in advocating for the merger, said the city would save about $180,000, and connections from South Portland to the University of Southern Maine and the Maine Mall area would be improved. He said METRO wants to be a partner in providing service by merging routes in Portland, Westbrook and South Portland.
The cost-savings includes factoring in a rate hike by METRO. Jordan said the service has not raised rates since 2010.
Jordan said service could be improved by reducing duplication and operating more efficiently. METRO maintains seven local bus routes and one express route that serves the region from Brunswick to South Portland with more than 50 buses in its fleet. The agency’s annual operating budget is $10 million, and the service employs more than 80 people.
Councilor Kate Lewis said she is concerned the 30,000 bus trips the city provides for low-income riders would be at risk under a merger.
Councilor Claude Morgan, who said he used public transportation while living in Europe, said perhaps the city will need to merge with METRO at some point in the future, but not at this time. Councilor Adrian Dowling agreed the timing to address the proposal was not ideal.
“We don’t have time to deal with this right now; we have bigger fish to fry, and we don’t need a solution to this right now,” he said, contending issues such as short-term rentals in the city are a larger priority.
South Portland city councilors will not entertain a proposal to merge the city bus service with the greater Portland METRO service.