PORTLAND – Recent turnover and budget concerns at area public transportation providers have prompted officials from four communities to explore forming a single agency to serve Greater Portland.
Four separate agencies now provide service for Portland, South Portland, Westbrook, Falmouth and the Biddeford-Saco area. Each one has its own schedules and overhead costs for buses, garages and administration.
Despite efforts to better coordinate the system, it remains confusing and inconvenient for riders — especially those in outlying towns like Westbrook and Falmouth, who must make several transfers to reach destinations, particularly to and from South Portland.
The Greater Portland Council of Governments will lead the effort.
Executive Director Neal Allen said the planning agency will soon begin conversations with Greater Portland Metro, South Portland Bus, RTP and Shuttlebus Zoom, which runs from the Saco-Biddeford area to Portland.
Allen said the council will explore any option that would increase efficiency and improve service.
“We are a little unique in this area, with the number of transit providers,” Allen said. “Most of your metropolitan areas only have one transit district or transit authority. It begs the question: Is there a different model?”
The time is right to explore that question, Allen said, because transportation costs continue to rise, while state and federal funding continue to be “an issue of concern.”
Also, recent vacancies in two of the transportation agencies — Metro and RTP — are feeding the desire to re-examine operations.
Metro has an interim general manager, while RTP recently appointed a new director, Allen said.
A group of officials from South Portland, Portland, Falmouth and Westbrook met recently to discuss consolidating service.
“There was very clear support that we should reach out further in the coming weeks and months,” Allen said. “They’re all facing significant budget challenges. Transit service contributions are a part of their budget and they need to look at ways to hopefully find cost savings.”
Metro has a $6.4 million operating and capital budget for 2012, with nearly $84,000 coming from the state and $1.4 million from the federal government. About $2 million is generated from passenger and non-passenger revenue.
Portland pays about $2.4 million for the service, while Westbrook pays about $392,000 and Falmouth pays $137,000.
Falmouth, which joined Metro in 2004, will vote in November on a proposal to withdraw.
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said he is excited about the regional initiative, which could lead to more, regular bus service and fewer vehicles in the city.
“We have a huge number of people that come into Portland on a daily basis from surrounding communities,” he said. “If we really want to talk about addressing some of the traffic and transportation issues in Portland, we really need to look regionally.”
Brennan said he was encouraged that all four communities agreed to look at the issue. “That’s a very positive indication of us being able to make progress,” he said.
Metro was formed in 1976, serving Portland, Westbrook, Yarmouth, Cape Elizabeth and South Portland, according to Metro’s website. Cape Elizabeth and Yarmouth pulled out in 1978, followed by South Portland in 1983.
South Portland now spends nearly $975,000 a year to operate its bus service. City Manager James Gailey said about $440,000 comes from passenger and non-passenger revenue.
South Portland Mayor Patti Smith did not return calls for comment, but Allen described South Portland’s bus service as “cost-effective.”
Allen said last week’s evaluation was “very preliminary,” so no timetable has been set for developing a new transportation model. He said there would be an extensive public process before any new model was adopted.
Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: