SOUTH PORTLAND — The South Portland City Council voted to waive fares for users of city buses at an emergency meeting last week.

City Manager Scott Morelli told the council that two regional transit agencies were already considering waiving fares. While the move could cost an estimated $20,000 in lost revenue per month, Morelli still recommended the board pass the measure.

“We’re coming now into tougher economic times,” he said. “People still need to get places, and this is one small way that the city could help in that regard.”

Councilors said they agreed with the idea, regardless of the financial burden.

“In this time of hardship, I think it’s a good gesture and a wise move to waive that fee,” said Councilor April Caricchio.

The council stressed that despite the waived fees, the public should still heed warnings about being out in public.

“I think it’s important to say if you don’t need to ride the bus, don’t ride the bus,” Councilor Susan Henderson said.

Henderson asked Transportation Director Arthur Handman if he had a plan to address potential crowding if more people began using a now-free bus line. Handman said he didn’t expect a problem, but there are one or two spare buses, and that drivers report back on passenger volume on nearly every run.

“If we see that we’re going to really get into trouble with keeping social distancing, we can send out a supervisor who can possibly run an extra run if necessary,” he said.

Handman also assured the council that his crews were sanitizing the surfaces of every bus twice a day.

The measure passed unanimously.

Morelli said the fees would remain waived as long as conditions warrant.

Solar work continues

The council voted to continue preliminary work on two proposed solar panel projects, one expanding the array of panels on the city’s capped landfill on Highland Avenue, and the other involving panels being installed on the roof of the community center at 21 Nelson Road.

South Portland Sustainability Director Julie Rosenbach told The Forecaster that she estimates the projects, if approved, will, over the average 40-year lifespan of the panels, save the city more than $15.5 million in electricity costs.

“They will save substantial money, and they will start doing it right off the bat,” she said.

The council voted to grant permission to Rosenbach to draft contracts for each project. Rosenbach said the drafts will go to the council at a later date for further discussion.

Council meeting ‘unusual’

The council met in person, with Councilor Katelyn Bruzgo attending virtually via teleconferencing software that was also available to the public for viewing remotely.

Mayor Katherine Lewis acknowledged she was calling the meeting during the two-week ban established March 15 on public meetings, but the council needed “to address some pressing and urgent issues related to conducting certain elements of city business that we hope will continue in that two-week period.”

Lewis acknowledged the move was “unusual,” but said “we are trying to use technology as best we can to include members of the public this evening.”

The meeting is available for viewing on the city’s website.

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