More passengers are riding public transportation in southern Maine than at any time in the past decade, but some Portland-area officials say a lack of coordination among the seven agencies operating their own train, bus and ferry services is holding back future gains.

From 2013 to 2018, ridership on public buses in the region grew by 24 percent to 2.8 million rides, according to an analysis by the Greater Portland Council of Governments, a regional planning group. During the same period, transit ridership fell by 5 percent nationally. About 70 percent of ridership in 2018 was on Greater Portland Metro, the largest agency and one that has expanded service and ridership dramatically.

Customers and businesses want access to more public transit, but the present network, which runs from York County to Bridgton and Brunswick, hobbles expansion, said Kristina Egan, executive director of the council.

Passengers trying to use more than one transportation agency for a trip report frustrating customer service, long waits and confusing schedules and fares, she said.

“Whether it is one agency or several agencies, the user needs to feel like it is one system,” Egan said. “It needs to be relatively cheap, regular and a seamless system people can use and know how to use. We don’t have that now.”

A lack of system integration isn’t the only issue holding back fast, efficient regional transit in Maine. Dispersed rural communities, suburban sprawl and minimal state funding – just 86 cents annually per person, among the lowest in the country – also contribute.

“The fact that we have these challenges and are still knocking it out of the park with ridership is a tremendous testament to how much the public really wants transit,” Egan said.

Executives from three of the biggest agencies in the region – Metro, South Portland Bus Service and Biddeford-Saco-Old Orchard Beach Transit – will take a step toward unification this spring when they roll out a coordinated fare and electronic ticketing system.

With the new system, passengers for the first time can use the same smart card or phone app for all systems. Fares will be the same for all local buses, and there will be no need for transfer passes.

Metro General Manager Greg Jordan said the new fare and ticketing system is important, but only scratches the surface of the problem.

“There’s more work to do, we need a system that is seamless to the customer across all public-facing aspects,” he said. That could include one website or app from which customers can get service information, or better-timed schedules to make travel easier.

“That’s the most important thing we can do, improve the lives of people we serve,” Jordan said.

But some agencies, while admitting that coordination is desirable, are reluctant to give up their independence.

“There’s is a slight misconception out there – the system is not difficult to use,” said Arthur Handman, director of the South Portland Bus Service. South Portland has agreed to integrated fares and participates in regional planning, but Handman said total coordination is unrealistic.

“It is just impossible to align three separate transit operator systems,” he said. “There is just no way to do it. Buses run late – it is just impractical to try to do it.”

South Portland did not act on a Metro proposal to merge the two services in 2018. A merger could have saved South Portland $180,000 a year, according to Metro officials at the time. The deal was not pursued primarily because South Portland employees would have lost their union seniority, Handman said.

South Portland Mayor Kate Lewis said that by staying independent, South Portland can make its own operational choices, such as extending Saturday night service to downtown Portland. That might not have happened under a unified agency, she said.

As a frequent bus rider, Lewis admits that an uncoordinated schedule can result in long wait times between buses, but she isn’t convinced a complete merger would make a difference.

“I don’t believe that merging systems will solve coordination issues,” Lewis said. “I think it has to be demand from the ground that forces more buses and drivers that makes coordination easier.”

Biddeford-Saco-Old Orchard Beach Transit, the third-largest public bus service in the region, is prepared for more cooperation but also is opposed to a full merger, said Executive Director Tony Scavuzzo.

His agency runs five year-round bus routes plus the Zoom express commuter service between Biddeford, Saco and Portland on the Maine Turnpike. Since Scavuzzo came on board last spring, the agency has updated its routes and branding and is preparing to put more vehicles on the road.

“To me, regionalization means collaborating together (and) I’m not quite sure we’ve done that very well in the past,” he said. Other cities have coordinated systems without single ownership, he added. Since each community needs particular service, he thinks that model could work in southern Maine too.

Other players are pushing for greater coordination. Peter Mills, the executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, said the authority is open to providing funding for transit-oriented capital projects, but only if it determines that the system works well enough to take pressure off the highway.

The turnpike has threatened to pull its annual financial support for the Zoom bus, which launched 20 years ago to offset traffic increases on the interstate. Mills said the turnpike authority was disappointed with the service’s performance and advocated for Zoom to be folded into Metro.

Recent signals from the transit agency that it intends to reboot the Zoom service to make it run more effectively – including the possible addition of a stop in downtown Biddedord-Saco near thousands of apartments in renovated textile mils – is promising, Mills said.

The turnpike authority last year approved a $140-million plan to widen a five-mile section of highway through Portland. Public transit could help preserve that investment and keep traffic down, but only if it works, Mills said.

“These towns are nuts if they don’t consolidate, because there are wonderful efficiencies of scale,” he said. “All we are doing is trying to encourage them in their own self-interest.”

A modern, effective transit system is not just convenient, it is crucial for economic development, said Tony Payne, senior vice president for external affairs at MEMIC and chairman of advocacy at the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Public transit emerged as the No. 1 issue for the chamber in recent strategic planning, ahead of workforce and affordable housing, Payne said.

“The transit jungle is that we have multiple systems that are not well-coordinated,” he said. “It is not sufficient for the growth we think we need.”

Chamber members intend to stake a public position this spring in favor of transit integration. The business group decided to establish a position now to address parking shortages in downtown Portland, and before major new housing, retail and office developments at Rock Row in Westbrook and the Downs in Scarborough contribute to the region’s rush hour traffic woes.

Frequency – not less than 20 minutes between buses – reliability and convenience are characteristics the chamber intends to push for, Payne said.

“(We are) trying to facilitate a conversation that has been out there, but never with the deeper resolve that actually gets a modern public transit system in place,” he said.

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