In the Portland area, public transportation is supposed to be a primary and accessible option for people who do not have the means to get around otherwise – but many of the arguments made in favor of public transit focus on its benefits to the people who do have other options.

In an Aug. 19 Maine Voices column, the Husky Line was heralded for increasing access for 8,000 University of Southern Maine students to the regional transportation system. The same piece points out that USM Muskie School professor emeritus Richard Barringer recently cited improvements in public transportation as potentially the most important factor in encouraging economic growth. According to the American Public Transportation Association, a person who switches from daily commuting by car to public transit will save about $9,797 per person, per year, on average.

In the past five years, federal funding for public transportation has grown by about 500 percent, giving this area the opportunity to connect people with resources like never before. Today, however, the residents who are in the most need of public transportation are not able to count on it to access the services they need.

In order for our region’s limited social services system to be most effective in helping to heal those who are suffering, public transportation must be easily and universally accessible to those who are homeless, disabled, struggling with addiction, living without income and with no resources of their own. For people actively trying to better their lives, and in search of resources to do so, $1.50 per one-way trip can add up fast.

Granted, there is decent coverage for people who are primarily traveling to downtown Portland, but what is seriously lacking is a public transportation route that connects affordable housing, located far from the center of the city, with the services people need, most often situated in the city’s downtown.

Those struggling with housing insecurity caused by physical, behavioral, emotional and/or social problems need access to affordable housing so that they can live safely and securely rather than on the streets hoping to get a shelter bed from night to night. In this area, affordable housing is a major barrier to recovery for the homeless. It is often located so far away that those with the greatest need must choose between stable housing and access to services.

Resources including hospitals, employers, caseworkers, government services like the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, treatment facilities, 12-step meetings, food pantries and other vital programs are necessary to preserve the lives of human beings caught in a struggle that any of us might face if we miss one or two paychecks. We may look at those suffering on the streets of the Old Port and see ourselves as somehow fundamentally different from them, but that difference is an illusion. Hear a few of their stories and you’ll learn just how similar we are and how easy it can be to lose it all.

In addition to a lack of health care access in Maine because of the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid, one major barrier to ending homelessness in our region is the lack of affordable housing that is within reach of support services needed to keep people safe, secure and healthy.

A 2014 APTA report calculated that there is a realized economic gain of $4 for every $1 invested in public transportation. Let’s use federal public transportation funds to make this region a place where we can all thrive.

The focus of transit system development can’t be just on tourists, eco-friendly travelers, students and the otherwise carless. It must be part of a broader solution to end homelessness in a Portland recently named one of America’s happiest cities by National Geographic Explorer. Let’s become the happiest city in America by improving the quality of life for all of us, not just for those that have been deemed worthy or deserving by policymakers in Augusta.

And if you need another reason to support public transportation infrastructure development, a 2013 study, released by APTA and the National Association of Realtors, found that during the last recession, residential property values performed 42 percent better on average if they were within half a mile of public transit lines with high-frequency service.


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