Passengers board a bus on Elm Street in Portland on Friday. Southern Maine public transit agencies will lower fares and expand services using $7 million granted to the region through the American Rescue Plan Act. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Southern Maine bus riders will pay less and get more service under a $7 million public transportation funding package from a regional transportation agency.

The package, unveiled by the Greater Portland Council of Governments on Friday, is intended to improve current and future service, boost riders’ experience, and increase ridership after sharp decreases in passenger numbers during the coronavirus pandemic.

It includes money for half-price fares across most transit agencies for nine months, more frequent buses, speedier service on busy Portland travel corridors, improvements to bus shelters and new passenger communications.

“These different projects will hopefully contribute toward and improve customer experience and incentivize riders to come back to, or exceed, the levels where they were prior to the pandemic,” said Matthew Sturgis, Cape Elizabeth town manager and chair of the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, the agency that approved the funding requests.

The package includes $2.9 million for service improvements to Greater Portland Metro, the largest regional transit agency. It will pay for increased service and longer hours on three bus routes, more service on Congress Street in Portland and extending the University of Southern Maine bus line from Gorham to Ocean Gateway in Portland.

Changes include running service earlier in the morning and later in the evening to accommodate more shift workers and other riders, and compensate for the loss of morning and afternoon commuters, Metro Executive Director Greg Jordan said. The plan includes modifying routes so riders can catch a bus going either way on Congress every 10 minutes.


March was Metro’s best ridership month in two years, but the 121,000 boardings were still only about 60 percent of monthly totals before the pandemic.

“We have to build our way out of the ridership reduction we have seen,” Jordan said.

People walk to board a Metro bus on Elm Street in Portland on Friday. Emergency federal funding being used to expand bus routes in southern Maine is expected to last about three years. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer


The federal funding for route adjustments will last for about three years, and local transit officials plan to access other sources and fare revenue to keep the changes permanent.

Making adjustments to its routes and schedule will be done cautiously, however. Metro and other public bus agencies have contended with a tight labor market and high demand for drivers. Earlier this year, Metro warned riders that staffing issues could interrupt service, and last month it reduced the frequency of one route in Portland and the Breez commuter shuttle.

“We are very mindful of the fact that the current labor situation is not going to allow us to make these improvements rapidly,” Jordan said. “We are phasing the service improvements in over many months or a year so that we don’t over-promise.”


About $1.1 million will be spent to slash fares in half on Metro, South Portland Bus Service and Biddeford-Saco-Old Orchard Beach Transit buses for nine months. Full local fares are $2 on all three services.

Reducing fares generally spurs ridership, but it is unclear whether it can attract previous riders and new people to the bus after the dislocation caused by the pandemic.

“The vote is still out nationally on whether or not fare reduction initiatives are sparking new recurring ridership – it is too early for any of us to tell,” Jordan said.

Another $882,000 will add a bus to the Southern Maine Connector Route between Biddeford and Sanford, bringing that line to an hourly service, and $500,000 will be used to increase bus frequency on two routes in Biddeford.

Greta Beal of Portland, center, gets off a bus on Congress Street while transitioning to another bus on Elm Street in Portland on Friday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer


Aside from direct service enhancements, federal funding also is being used to improve infrastructure and communications.


The spending package includes $750,000 to improve bus stop accessibility, and $500,000 to buy traffic signal priority equipment and software for buses and intersections long Forest and Washington avenues in Portland to speed bus service. Another $380,000 will go to a new passenger information system across the region that will include digital signs at key locations, service alerts for passengers and a real-time online map.

Southern Maine transit agencies received about $61 million in relief funding over the last two years. More than 80 percent went to maintaining the service and paying staff during a shortage of riders and revenue.

But some funding should be dedicated to making long-term improvements and thinking about how public transit can serve the region in the future, said Strugis, the head of the regional transportation group.

“We’ve received all this funding, (and) you need to have more to show for it than short-term results,” he said. “You have to think about the long-term and how can you make those investments so those funds have a lasting legacy for the riders and our operators.”

Seven out of 10 projects were selected for funding in the package. Unfunded projects included a $250,000 initiative to offer a better transit connection to the Maine Medical Center campus in Scarborough, $65,000 for enhanced customer communication in Biddeford-Saco-Old Orchard Beach and $4 million for onsite vessel battery storage for the Casco Bay Lines ferry service.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.