SOUTH PORTLAND – Although they have concerns about possible increased costs, loss of local control and whether a consolidated bus service would ultimately benefit riders, South Portland city councilors agreed last week to move forward with the second stage of a study designed to create a new regional transit authority.

With the help of a consultant, the Southern Maine Area Transportation Steering Committee, which was created in July 2013, is leaning toward recommending that the South Portland Bus service merge with the Greater Portland Metro service and the Shuttlebus-Zoom, which serves Biddeford and Saco.

Going into the Sept. 8 council workshop in South Portland, City Manager Jim Gailey felt the initial cost-benefit analysis created by the consultant indicated that the community would not necessarily see lower costs and better service through a merger.

However, at the meeting, Gailey said he would be willing to continue the process and allow the consultant and the steering committee to come up with a final report before making any firm decision on South Portland’s participation in a possible consolidation of the three bus services.

That position was supported by the councilors, who all said that while there are many questions still to be answered, including cost-sharing, the governance of any new transit authority and job security for South Portland Bus employees, they are willing to wait for the report to be completed.

In introducing the proposed regionalization of the South Portland Bus service, Gailey told councilors “I want to see the final report to ensure that we can have an informed dialogue. To (make) a concrete decision, we need to go into the end zone and make sure we get all the information before we make a final decision.”

In addition to the various transit authorities and communities involved in the overall discussion of whether a regionalized bus service makes sense, the Greater Portland Council of Governments has taken a lead role in advising the transportation steering committee.

Last week, Ed Suslovic, president of the Council of Governments board, said he appreciated South Portland’s willingness to continue the process, which will ultimately affect the transportation options in eight communities across southern Maine.

While Suslovic was quick to assure the South Portland City Council that a final recommendation is still months away, Mike Reynolds, chairman of the steering committee and a member of the Raymond Board of Selectmen, said he has no doubt that “one coordinated system is the best way to go.”

Bonnie Rodden, president of the board of directors at Greater Portland Metro agreed. She aid that regionalization is a “top priority” for the bus service. She said such a merger would improve services for riders and create efficiencies.

The regionalization option supported by both Rodden and Reynolds calls for the South Portland Bus service and the Metro service to share a facility, while the Shuttlebus-Zoom would continue to operate out of its facility in Biddeford.

However, all three transit providers would operate under one name and have one administration and one board of directors. Under this proposal, though, it looks like all three host communities would see an increase in expenses, totaling $156,251 during the next 10 years.

Suslovic told the South Portland City Council last week that he understands its concerns and said the merger would only “work if all eight communities (involved) see a benefit.”

He also assured the council that moving forward he wanted to ensure that each community was represented on a new working group that would “have input as we discuss the tough stuff.”

Councilor Tom Blake, who has represented the city on the transportation steering committee, said, “I’m all in favor of collaboration and regionalization, but we need to make sure we have an even playing field and good communication.”

He added, “In the end we don’t necessarily need to save money, but we do need to have a better service.”

Councilor Patti Smith said that “keeping the customer first and foremost is critical” to any discussion of merging the three bus services and also said she would like to see figures on ridership growth.

Councilor Linda Cohen said she would “never support” regionalization unless it’s clearly in the “best interests” of the riders and the city’s taxpayers.

But, Councilor Maxine Beecher went even further, and said she was on the council when South Portland split off from the Metro service initially to form its own bus system.

“There were reasons for the split,” she said, “and I am hesitant based on the history. We have worked hard to build a bus system here in South Portland. I am open (to merging), but I need to be assured of equality.”

Steve Linnell, the transportation director at the Council of Governments, said it would take at least until the New Year to get a final report from the consultant and even then there would still be “a lot of details to flush out.”

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