METRO Executive Director Greg Jordan tells the Westbrook City Council Nov. 23 that there has been a 50% drop in passengers since the pandemic began. Screenshot / WCTV

WESTBROOK — METRO bus ridership has plummeted 50% in 2020 due to the pandemic, but despite the resulting drop in income, Westbrook should see a decrease in its monetary contribution and Gorham’s share likely will remain stable, thanks to federal pandemic relief funds.

Westbrook will contribute about $726,000, a decrease of about $75,000 from last year, which represents a small alleviation, according to Mayor Mike Foley, who serves on the Greater Portland METRO Board of Directors. The city also can expect a $73,000 credit from METRO this month.

Gorham Town Manager Ephrem Paraschak said the town will look at extending the previously agreed upon pilot payments for the Husky Line, currently $35,000 annually. Because the pandemic has thrown ridership off, an accurate measure of Gorham’s use and its corresponding contribution can’t be determined now.

METRO reported overall boardings of 2.1 million in 2019. Since the 2020 pandemic, METRO Executive Director Greg Jordan said, ridership has been cut in half with roughly 1 million boardings this year. Boardings by town are not available.

A bus drops off passengers in front of the old fire station at 11 Mechanic St. in 2019. File photo

METRO is made up of Portland, Falmouth and Westbrook. It also serves Gorham, Brunswick, South Portland, Yarmouth and Freeport with 44 buses and over 100 employees. Four routes specifically go through Westbrook.

“Looking to 2021, we have a $12.7 million operating budget, a 4.9% increase over 2020,” Jordan said. 

Jordan said while the plunge in ridership would normally be financially devastating for METRO, receiving over $4 million in CARES Act money has covered the losses and expenses.

In total, around $53 million in CARES funding was allocated to seven transit companies in the region. With about $31 million of that left, officials are looking at releasing it in six months increments, according to Transportation Project Manager Ryan Neale at Greater Portland Council of Governments.

“We’ve had a 75% fair revenue drop, which if not for CARES would be catastrophic,” Jordan told the Westbrook City Council last week.

Two rounds of funding covered the cost of pandemic operating expenses and eased the burden on member municipalities, he said.

“The METRO board did approve a credit back to all of our municipalities, and coming to Westbrook in December is nearly $73,000,” Jordan said.

The Westbrook council unanimously approved the formula for determining their contribution at the Nov. 23 meeting. The official METRO budget still has to be set following municipal approvals.

“The subsidy allocation formula is based on route miles and route hours of service to each community, an equitable measure of public transit services provided,” City Administrator Jerre Bryant said at the meeting. “Based on the projected budget for 2021, the city of Westbrook is anticipating a reduction in its transit costs of 9% below the current year.”

Gorham officials will weigh the plans to continue the pilot payments “in the next month,” according to Paraschak.

“The Husky Line has been a tremendous value for our community, but obviously the pandemic has created an unforeseen scenario where ridership has dramatically declined,” Paraschak said. “Moving forward, Gorham will have to weigh the cost of the service versus the benefit for our residents.”

Gorham’s pilot program began after the introduction of the Husky Line, an express line connecting Gorham, Westbrook and Portland with major stops along the University of Southern Maine campuses.

“Were it not for the pandemic, Metro would be working with Gorham to evaluate Husky Line performance and determine the town’s desire to continue receiving transit service beyond the three year pilot phase,” Jordan said. “We hope to work with Gorham on a six- to 12-month extension of the pilot phase along with an extension of the nominal funding amount it has been contributing.”

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