Wheels on the METRO bus go round and round to Portland high schools

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PORTLAND — When high school students start school on Sept. 2, they will get there in an entirely new way.

This fall marks the beginning of a partnership between Portland Public Schools and the METRO public transportation system. Students at Portland, Deering and Casco Bay high schools will be provided transit passes for free and unlimited use of METRO during the academic year.

METRO General Manager Greg Jordan said the company had been planning a route change, but the partnership with PPS came together and provided a convenient way to do that.

Jordan said the new Route 9 will be one, big circular route that will not only benefit students, but also crosstown riders.

“One we reason we did that was to create a better transit corridor along Congress Street,” Jordan said, adding that Congress is arguably “the most important transportation corridor in the state.”

Route 9 will operate in both directions, primarily on Washington Avenue, Congress Street and Stevens Avenue, with 15-minute frequencies during the hour before school starts and after school ends. It will also be accessible in the North Deering neighborhood, which Jordan said has been under served.

METRO service will be available for the first time to students who live within two miles of their schools.

“It ties together all three high schools with one route,” Jordan said. “It makes it much more convenient.”

To accommodate increased ridership, Jordan said METRO has increased the frequency of trips and will be staging buses to put into service if the need arises. Staff will monitor loads to release more buses, although Jordan said no new buses are needed to provide this service.

“We’re adding trips into the service,” he said. “We can do what we need with the existing fleet.”

METRO driver Ed Knutson said there will be extra coverage in heavy traffic areas during the first few weeks of the partnership. The extra coverage will allow other buses to “grab overflow and make sure (the students) get to school.”

The increased services run Monday through Friday during the school year, and Jordan said it requires an additional $87,000 in METRO’s budget. The total operating budget for 2015 is $7.4 million.

METRO drivers have undergone new training to prepare for the changes, including learning the new route, and how to record student passes. Jordan said most of the training has been to ensure the drivers are more cautious and patient with new riders.

“A lot of it is about being patient and overly helpful for individuals who may have never used the METRO before,” he said.

Knutson, who has been a METRO driver for four years, said the partnership will be beneficial for the students and for METRO ridership, and called it a “win-win.”

“If you start something at a young age, it tends to carry on,” Knutson said.

Jordan said he hopes students will start using METRO now, rather than waiting for the first day of school, and is also asking for patience during the first few weeks.

“There will be bumps, but we will work hard to smooth them out,” he said.

Knutson said he and the other drivers are expecting some challenges, such as the level of demand at certain locations and the number of buses needed to get the students to school.

“The agency isn’t going into this not expecting a learning curve,” he said.

Knutson said he hopes other drivers “use due caution” around the METRO buses, with the knowledge they will now be transporting students.

“Just like when you see a baseball or a football in the street, assume a child is following,” he said.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Driver Ed Knutson said he thinks the partnership between METRO and the Portland Public Schools will increase bus ridership.

Students at Portland’s three public high schools will begin using METRO buses to get to and from school on Sept. 2.

Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.