SOUTH PORTLAND — A proposal to adopt an automated fare system was met with initial approval from the city council. The proposal was introduced during a workshop at a July 2 meeting.

No formal action was taken at the meeting. The proposal will continue to be workshopped and re-introduced to the council.

Three major changes to South Portland’s public transportation system are proposed.

First, the introduction of an automated fare payment and collection system, in which riders would pay their fare using either an app on their phone or a “smartcard,” which would be purchased at a vendor and loaded with money.

Second, an increase in base fare from $1.50 to $2.

Third, the introduction of daily and monthly fare capping, which would make it so riders who use the automated fare system would never pay more than $6 a day or $60 a month.

South Portland was invited to participate in the proposal alongside seven other regional transit agencies. Since the invitation to participate, the Bus Service Citizens Advisory Committee has been meeting to review the proposal, which is still in its early stages.

Kristina Egan, executive director of Greater Portland Council of Governments (GPCOG), said the proposal is part of an effort to create a more seamless Greater Portland transit system.

A GPCOG survey of riders throughout the southern Maine region found that the overall urban transit system is “fragmented, invisible, confusing, infrequent, slow, insufficiently accessible, and rigid with insufficient incentive to use.”

The region’s transit plan calls for a more unified fare payment system so that rider’s travel more seamlessly.

“Under the proposal, someone can buy one card and move seamlessly across South Portland, Metro, and Shuttlebus Zoom, with that one card,” Portland city councilor Linda Ray said. “That increases access, decreases limitation, and will bring new riders.”

General Manager of Greater Portland Metro Greg Jordan said the new technology would make fare pricing and payments simpler, more convenient, and more equitable.

“Right now, you have to have cash in exact change,” Jordan said. “Automated fare technology will allow riders to use transit more easily and allow bus drivers to focus on service and safety, rather than taking fares.”

To evaluate how accessible a smart fare system would be for riders, Metro conducted online and field intercept surveys over a two-week period in January and February of 2019. They found that 89 percent of respondents have smart phones and 86 percent have access to banking. 5 percent have access to neither smart phones nor banking.

Sixty-nine percent of respondents were favorable to using a smart fare system. 15 percent were neutral, and 16 percent unfavorable.

Cash would still be accepted under an automated fare system.

On top of introducing a smart fare payment system, the proposal would increase fare. The last Greater Portland Metro fare pricing change was in 2010- 11.

“The percentage of our revenue that comes from fares has been dropping in the past 10 years,” Jordan said. “This is a natural trend as costs increase and fares largely remain static.”

Currently, Metro is 74 percent taxpayer funded and 22 percent rider funded.

“Our board has adopted a goal of trying to get to a 25 percent or greater rider funded budget,” Jordan said.

Metro is proposing that South Portland, to match other participating transit systems, raise their base fare from $1.50 to $2 and their reduced fare from 75 cents to $1.

Alongside fare increases, the proposal would cap fares at $6 a day or $60 a month. Once a rider reaches the cap, all rides thereafter would be free.

The GPCOG studied the impact of the proposal on low income riders. Data from 2014 and 2019 shows that twothirds of South Portland riders have incomes under $20,000. Most people who ride the bus ride it frequently, making at least three round trips rides a week. 39 percent of riders make over five round trips a week. Low-income riders ride more often than higher income riders.

“Fare increase and capping will have different impacts on different rider groups,” Egan said. “The real beneficiaries of the proposal are riders with low incomes, because they tend to ride more frequently.”

Egan noted that riders who continue to pay in cash won’t benefit from fare capping regardless of income or the number of times they ride.

If the proposal passes, about 49 percent of full fare and reduced fare riders will save money, the study concluded.

“We would like to work toward implementation in 2020,” Jordan said. “This is still a live discussion, with a lot to align between a number of agencies.”

Mayor Claude Morgan offered general support for the proposal.

“If it doesn’t work for us, we don’t have to do it,” he said. “What we’re being asked tonight is whether staff should move forward and gather information and be a partner in this. We’d be at a loss if we didn’t.”

Councilors also spoke in favor of pursuing the project.

The next step, after more information is gathered and the city is presented with a plan, would be for the proposal to go through a formal public and council process. If met with approval, project phasing would begin.

Evelyn Waugh can be reached at [email protected].

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