Regional transportation planners will use $800,000 of federal relief funds to examine a potential rapid transit link between Portland and Gorham, a corridor identified as the best candidate for a dedicated bus or rail line in the region.

Members of the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System’s policy committee voted Thursday to allocate the funding, despite concerns about spending so much on future plans when transit agencies have unmet needs now amid sluggish passenger and revenue recovery. The transportation planning body oversees federal funding allocations throughout the Portland area.

The study would determine whether a rapid transit route from Gorham through Westbrook to Portland is feasible and recommend various funding, revenue, ridership and transportation options. It also would include public outreach to gather feedback from interested parties, in addition to examining environmental and other data.

A transit line along an 11.5-mile corridor west of Portland was highlighted as the best area to begin an analysis of rapid transit in a long-term public transportation plan the regional system, also known as PACTS, approved last year.

The corridor is relatively short and has plenty of commuter traffic, a high number of jobs and residents within less than a mile and anchor destinations such as the University of Southern Maine and Maine Medical Center, that report noted.

Gorham already is linked to Portland via the Husky Line, a limited bus service that connects Portland, Westbrook and Gorham and the two USM campuses, and Portland and Westbrook have multiple bus lines and intercity connections. Unlike those options, rapid transit could run on a dedicated route, such as a bus lane with timed signals or a rail corridor.

Traffic congestion in the Gorham area led the Maine Turnpike Authority in recent years to examine whether to build a new highway spur to get vehicles off local roads.

Some committee members agreed with the intent of the transit study but questioned its timing and funding source. The $800,000 budget includes paying PACTS staff to manage the project, and would be paid from $53 million the agency received through the federal CARES Act last year. About $15 million of that money is unspent. The budget was based on an estimate of $70,000 per mile for studies conducted in similar regions, PACTS staff said.

Transit operators have identified $15 million in unmet needs for their services, William Gayle, a grants manager for the agency that oversees the Amtrak Downeaster passenger rail system, told committee members at the meeting. Some CARES Act funds need to be reserved to assist public transit agencies, he added. While many parts of the economy have recovered from last year’s pandemic-related shock, transit ridership and revenue remain far lower than before the pandemic.

“As we look forward about how we use CARES funds, there are a lot of immediate-term needs that operators in the region have identified that can be used to bring back ridership,” Gayle said. “We need to be cognizant about how we use that funding in the future.”

While 90 percent of federal funding is set aside to help agencies get through this period, some was earmarked for innovation and future planning that could enable stronger transportation in the long term, said Greg Jordan, general manager of Metro, the Portland-area bus service.

“Ridership is not going to come back to our systems by itself. It is not coming back without careful, strategic and significant improvement and innovation in the network,” Jordan said. “This is really the first step in a multi-year study. This could be a really important investment in our system that in the long run will help us have a much more robust transit network.”


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