Greater Portland Metro’s board of directors voted unanimously Wednesday to temporarily reduce weekday bus service and stop charging fares.

Management at the transit service said the changes are needed to protect both drivers and riders from coronavirus infection. Metro said reducing the number of trips made sense given a 50 percent decline in ridership in recent days.

Route reductions will take effect Friday and remain in place through at least April 17. People can also ride Metro buses for free from Friday through April 30. Directors gave General Manager Greg Jordan the authority to implement further reductions or completely eliminate transit service if the outbreak worsens.

Under the proposal approved by directors at an unusual teleconference meeting, Metro will run with Saturday bus schedules on weekdays.

Jordan said the change will mean a reduction in the number of daily trips by city buses, as well as the Husky Line, which connects the University of Southern Maine’s Gorham campus with downtown Portland, and the BREEZ, which provides bus service between Portland and Yarmouth, Freeport and Brunswick. Jordan said the BREEZ will make seven round trips per day instead of 13 under the new plan.

“We don’t think the reductions will make crowding a problem,” said Jordan.

In a related announcement late Wednesday evening, Metro announced that its transit partners – Biddeford Saco Old Orchard Beach Transit, the South Portland Bus Service and Regional Transportation Program (RTP) – will suspend all fares effective March 20 in an effort to eliminate the handling of cash and paper and to maximize social distancing. The BSOOB Transit and RTP also decided Wednesday to reduce bus service.

“The region’s public transit agencies are working very hard to maintain transit service so people can travel for the most critical needs including grocery shopping, pharmacy visits, non-emergency medical needs, critical job access and to assist family members,” Jordan said in a statement. “We are asking riders to help Maine and the country slow the spread of COVID-19, and avoid using public transit when sick and for unnecessary trips.”

Jordan told directors he also anticipates a shortage of drivers as more people become infected. He said the reduction in bus service will partially offset the revenue loss caused by the fare suspension. Eventually, Metro might have to turn to the federal or state government for a subsidy to cover losses.

“There is a lot of support at the national level to make sure that transit agencies are made whole again from this emergency,” Jordan told the board.

In addition to suspending fares through April 30, the board also agreed to defer implementing its new automated fare payment system until May 1. The new system will feature contactless payment options that will allow riders to pay with a tap of their smartcard or by scanning their smartphone.

Letting people ride for free will reduce the need for drivers to have contact with riders. On a typical day, a driver might have to accept cash, monthly passes and paper transfers. Jordan said drivers will still help disabled riders.

“I totally support this,” said Ed Suslovic, a board member. “Folks have told me they are very concerned about the safety of our drivers.”

“This has been a moving target like no other we’ve seen,” said Westbrook Mayor Michael Foley, a board member. “I feel like we’ve made a month’s worth of decisions in one day.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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