PORTLAND – Nearly every candidate at Monday night’s mayoral debate at the State Theatre agreed that the city’s public transportation system is broken or inadequate.

But of those who spoke on the issue, each had a very different proposal for improving the Metro bus system. Ideas ranged from high-tech upgrades to doing away with fares.

The audience appeared to appreciate the various approaches to solving the problem.

“I’m not sure which one I liked best,” said Martha McNally, 62, who attended the event. “But I like that some of them are showing they’re outside-the-box thinkers, and I hope whoever wins, they’re not afraid to steal some of these ideas.”

There are 15 candidates for mayor on the Nov. 8 ballot. The winner will be Portland’s first popularly elected mayor in nearly 90 years.

Not all candidates had to answer each question at Monday’s forum, so only some weighed in on the transportation issue.

City Councilor David Marshall suggested syncing buses with smartphone applications, which would tell riders exactly how many minutes until the next bus arrives.

The city also could place screens with the same technology at bus stops, he said, so riders could see how far away each bus is and the routes each bus offers.

Former state Sen. Michael Brennan said public transportation “is really a regional problem and the solution is a regional solution.”

He said that having multiple bus operators crowds the downtown and reduces efficiency. The neighboring communities need to combine their resources and design one comprehensive bus system.

Light rail is also part of the future solution, Brennan said.

City officials are already considering big changes to Congress Street because of the bus traffic in the downtown section, which is used by Metro, South Portland’s City Bus, the ShuttleBus and Zoom Express. The changes proposed between High Street and Franklin Street include reversing the flow of some one-way streets, removing stop lights and eliminating almost all left turns.

Former state Rep. John Eder proposed possibly the most radical idea. He said high school students should use public transportation, rather than school buses, to get to school. By combining the school’s resources with the Metro system, the two could invest in more Metro buses and better efficiency.

It would also quickly increase ridership, Eder said, and “create good habits for the future.”

Marshall repeated his commitment to bringing a streetcar system to Portland, which “we could also use as an economic tool.”

Business tend to build more around streetcar systems than buses, he said, because streetcar systems show a permanent commitment to riders in an area.

The city could pay for it, he said, by using federal funds and establishing a transportation tax increment financing district, much as it did with the Arts District.

Candidate Markos Miller said the way to improve the city’s Metro system is to make ridership free. He pointed to Boulder, Colo., — a city with many similarities to Portland — as an example.

Free ridership would reduce revenue in the short-term, Miller said, but increasing ridership would attract more federal dollars in the long run, which is how Boulder pays for its system.

Despite the varied approaches, all five candidates drew applause from the crowd, but not necessarily from their opponents.

Firefighter Chris Vail said he loved Marshall’s streetcar idea, but with the struggling economy, the city wouldn’t be able to find funds.

Charles Bragdon scoffed at Eder’s idea of putting high school students on Metro buses. Metro can’t run efficiently with the few riders who use it now, Bragdon said, so increasing the numbers and expecting the buses to get kids to school on time is impractical.

Staff Writer Jason Singer can be contacted at 791-6437 or at: [email protected]