Greater Portland Metro is drafting a proposal to fold South Portland’s independent bus service into the regional transit system.

Consolidation could save the city more than $100,000 a year in transportation costs, according to an early version of the Metro proposal. The plan is being revised and those numbers are likely to change.

The Portland region has three different transit agencies and a paratransit service for the disabled, a mix that duplicates services and makes it harder for people to get around, said Metro General Manager Greg Jordan. Merging the two largest systems could make it simpler for people to use, he said.

“It contributes to a very confusing, fragmented system that in the end no one understands,” Jordan said. Metro serves Portland, Falmouth and Westbrook and has a shuttle to communities north of the city. “Government is complex enough. Why are we making it more complicated to use a critical and necessary service? We certainly don’t make it easy.”

While ridership on the region’s METRO bus routes has surged in recent years, patronage of the smaller South Portland Bus Service, which operates three bus lines in South Portland, has remained relatively flat.

SOURCE: Greater Portland METRO, City of South Portland
CHART: Christian MilNeil | @c_milneil

Some in South Portland may be reluctant to give up direct control of the city’s bus service, which it has had since the city split from the regional transit agency in 1983.

“I was on the council back when we were united. Unless things have changed a whole lot, I always felt we got the short end of the stick and paid a lot for it,” said City Councilor Maxine Beecher.

Metro will have to make a strong case that a merger will benefit South Portland financially and serve its riders for her to support it, Beecher said.

“I want to see the numbers, I want to see more bus stops, I want to see more than what I’ve got, so show me.”

It is too early in the process to know how a proposed merger would affect existing routes.

Greater Portland bus ridership, by route

Choose a route below to view detailed ridership data. Notes: South Portland ridership data is reported by fiscal year, while METRO ridership is reported by calendar year. METRO’s routes 3 and 6 were consolidated into Route 9 in the fall of 2015.

View annual ridership by route:

    SOURCE: Greater Portland METRO, City of South Portland
    INTERACTIVE: Christian MilNeil | @c_milneil

    The city owns seven buses that run three routes through South Portland to the Maine Mall area, Scarborough and central Portland, with connections to Metro and other regional transit. About 247,000 passengers rode the city bus in 2015-2016, almost 9 percent less than the year before, according to the city’s annual report. Fare revenue covered about 24 percent of the system cost, according to the city report, a two-point drop from the previous year. Fare revenue has declined for three straight years, from about $285,126 in 2014-2015 to $239,547 last year, according to city records.

    “Obviously, there is always interest in government to try and merge and consolidate services in the interest of cost savings and efficiencies,” said South Portland City Manager Scott Morelli. “What we are going to really look at when it comes in is, does it save money, does it provide the same or better service?”

    City staff is working with Metro to pull together information it needs to make an accurate pitch to the council, Morelli said.

    “You just want to do due diligence. You don’t want to have a proposal go in front of city officials based on faulty information and a year later find out that the cost goes up or service goes way down.”

    Early projections indicate South Portland could save hundreds of thousands of dollars from consolidation. Bus service will cost South Portland about $789,720 this year, after factoring in state and federal funding and revenue from fares and advertising, according to the city’s finance office. In a unified system, South Portland would pay about $591,300 in 2018, which would rise to about $693,000 by 2025, according to financial estimates included with an initial proposal in December. Metro is revising those figures to include costs it missed earlier, said Jordan, Metro’s general manager.

    “I am hesitant to draw conclusions from those numbers at this point,” he said. “What we are trying to do in South Portland is look at every nook and cranny. Ultimately, the council, the Metro board, we have all done our best to understand every little detail.”

    Apart from direct savings, a unified system would improve efficiency and planning, make Metro more competitive for grant funding and make the most of vehicles and resources, the agency said in its December proposal. It said a single system with fewer buses could let Metro redirect federal funds for bus replacement to other projects, like route expansion or more bus shelters.

    The merger proposal comes as Metro is expanding its footprint and increasing ridership. Metro had 1.8 million riders in 2016, a record for the agency. It has launched an express service linking Portland to Yarmouth, Freeport and Brunswick, and has a pass program for Portland high school students. In 2018, Metro will launch a major system expansion, including an express bus to Gorham, new routes in Westbrook and a transit pass for University of Southern Maine students.

    If a merger occurs, South Portland employees will be hired by Metro, Jordan said. The city’s bus service has 19 employees.

    Consolidation would also require altering Metro’s board of directors to include South Portland representation. The 10-member board presently has five members from Portland, three from Westbrook and two from Falmouth, an arrangement laid out in state law.

    “I think the most important thing from Metro’s perspective is that this is a dialogue, this is a fact-based conversation,” Jordan said. “We think this is the best for the city and the region.

    “We recognize we have a hill to climb for them to trust us to provide transit service and we take that very seriously.”

    Peter McGuire can be reached at 791-6325 or at:

    [email protected]

    Twitter: PeteL_McGuire

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