Bus riders wait for the number 4 bus Friday on Mechanic Street in Westbrook. Last week, Greater Portland METRO increased fares and introduced a new contactless system of paying. It was the first time since March 20 that riders were asked to pay. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — Greater Portland METRO bus system, South Portland Bus Service and Biddeford Saco Old Orchard Beach Transit have resumed charging passengers under a new fare structure.

The fares were suspended temporarily six months ago when the COVID-19 pandemic struck Maine.

Using a new system called DiriGO, riders can put money into an account and pay for bus rides by scanning a specialized card or smartphone application when they get on a bus. The routes include stops in Falmouth and West Falmouth.

“So far it has worked well,” Kristy Burdick, a Brighton Avenue resident said as she waited for a bus at the Monument Square bus stop Monday morning. “For me, it seems safer because you don’t have to carry a wad of cash. It is so much easier because I use my phone for everything.”

John Rioux, of Falmouth, and Steve Travis, of Portland, also reported the system has worked well for them thus far.

“I am happy with the service,” Rioux said.

METRO General Manager Greg Jordan said the transition was scheduled for April, but was postponed due to the pandemic, when the focus was shifted to continuing the bus service while making drivers and riders are safe as possible from the spread of the virus. Precautions included increased cleaning, the requirement of face masks or face shields, asking riders to socially distance as much as possible on the bus and capping the number of riders on the bus – now at 30.

Greater Portland METRO Marketing Director Denise Beck said now, with schools back in session and more businesses reopened, it is the right time to launch the system and resume the fare revenue stream.

“We can’t continue to be free. We need the fare revenue,” Beck said Oct. 1, the first day under the new system.

This is the first time since 2010 fares have been raised.

Jordan said the bus system was able to go close to half the year without fare revenue and cover other costs thanks to $3.8 million in funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. Jordan said had the pandemic not hit, METRO has estimated to take in roughly $3 million in fare revenue. Now it is expected to be closer to $765,000, 75% less than expected.

“That’s what has allowed us to absorb the fare loss,” he said.

Riders on METRO, South Portland Bus Service or Biddeford, Saco, Old Orchard Beach Transit buses can now use pre-paid cards to pay for rides. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

The DiriGO system will offer a far capping system in which the price riders pay for local bus service is capped at $6 a day, or $60 a month, or $3 a day, or $30 a month, if they qualify for reduced rates. Caps for service on the Breez or Zoom bus routes are higher. Once a cap is hit, the rest of the day or month is free.

Recognizing that not all riders have access to smart phones or are comfortable with new technology, Beck said riders can still pay with cash as they did before.

“Exact change will still be accepted. We expect a lot of people will continue to pay in cash, but we hope they see from other riders, (the DiriGO system) is easy to use. That it’s working and that it is convenient,” Beck said.

Beck said, introducing the new fare payment system is about keeping up with the times.

“We have been using paper tickets and paper passes forever. Transit systems have had similar systems for a long time and we had to catch up,” she said.

Rich Price, a bus driver on METRO’s Husky Line, which runs from downtown Portland to Gorham and includes stops at both University of Southern Maine campuses and downtown Westbrook, said the new system has worked well thus far.

“I haven’t had any issues or any complaints,” he said while stopped on Elm Street in Portland Oct. 1, shortly after the system was launched. “Everyone has been easy to deal with about it.”

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