WESTBROOK — Collaborating with the University of Southern Maine, Metro next year will stretch public bus transportation to Gorham, double its service along Portland’s Brighton Avenue and add a route through Westbrook to the Maine Mall.
The expanded bus service, projected to cost up to $4.5 million for new buses and stops, is set to roll in August 2018.
Under the plan announced Monday, the expansion would provide public transit to Gorham residents while 8,000 university students would receive passes to shuttle between USM campuses in Portland and Gorham.
Students will also have unlimited ride access throughout the Metro service area. Public riders will pay fares.
USM, Metro and municipal officials heralded the expansion at a press conference Monday.
“The Transit West Project will be the most significant and exciting expansion of public transportation on the state of Maine since Amtrak Downeaster launched in 2001,” John Thompson Jr., Metro president, said.
The collaborative effort will save the university money, USM President Glenn Cummings said. USM currently hires a private service to shuttle students between campuses.
Under the arrangement with Metro, the university will pay $400,000 annually.
Cummings said working students will also have transportation access to jobs. The service will have environmental integrity and reduces stress on parking, he added.
Partners in the deal include the Maine Department of Transportation, the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, the cities of Portland and Westbrook, and the town of Gorham.
“It’s a great opportunity for the city of Westbrook,” Jerre Bryant, Westbrook city administrator, said. “It connects us with our neighbors.”
Last October, the Gorham Town Council agreed to invest $35,000 annually for the next three years to participate in the project. Gorham Town Council Chairman Michael Phinney said Gorham is one of the fastest growing communities in the state and that traffic is a “challenge.”
The bus service could “shift” that traffic, he said.
Phinney said the town is “grateful” for the service, but cautioned it is “testing the waters.”
The new Green Line, or “Husky Line,” named for the USM mascot, will run from Gorham through downtown Westbrook to Portland. It’s also aimed at relieving overcrowding on Metro’s Route 4, which links Westbrook and Portland.
A restructured Route 4 combined with the “Husky Line” will ramp up daytime transportation from a bus every 30 minutes to one every 15 minutes, according to Metro.
Portland City Councilor Belinda Ray, a Metro board member, said the line will double transit along the Brighton Avenue corridor. Ray said the expansion reduces the need for parking in Portland and is essential for those who don’t have an automobile to travel to jobs and appointments.
“I’m very excited about this improvement,” Ray said.
In addition to the “Husky Line,” the new Blue Line will run from the Riverton/Prides Corner area through downtown Westbrook to the Maine Mall in South Portland. Proposed stops include the Westbrook Community Center on Bridge Street and the growing residential area along Spring Street.
“We never had a route to the mall,” Westbrook Mayor Michael Sanphy said before Monday’s announcement. “(It’s) very beneficial to Westbrook.”
Bryant said the “Husky” run has little financial impact on Westbrook, but the Blue Line will have an added, but still unknown, cost to the city.
After Monday’s announcement, Cummings said “Westbrook is key to this,” and he’s “hoping Gorham stays strong.”
Muhammad Khan, president of the student body at the university, in an email from Pakistan praised the bus expansion as a bonus for students that will help the university.
“I think the Metro expansion is critical for the growth for USM and fits perfectly into our mission of being a metropolitan university,” Khan said.
The bus service expansion is costly.
Greg Jordan, Metro general manager, said last fall that Metro would purchase seven new buses, costing $500,000 each to serve the transit expansion. A Metro press release this week said that the Federal Transit Administration will fund 80 percent of start-up costs with a grant.
It projects annual operating costs to implement the Husky and Blue lines at about $1.7 million.
“While the Transit West Project involves an expansion of public transit to Gorham, it is also a major transit expansion in the urban areas of Portland and Westbrook where improved transit services are sorely needed,” Jordan said in a statement.
University of Southern Maine President Glenn Cummings speaks in Westbrook Monday at a press conference announcing the rollout of expanded Metro bus service between Portland, Gorham and Westbrook.