Very little of the public money spent on transportation is spent on public transit, and most of it goes toward keeping the system in place now up and running.

Passengers board a bus on Elm Street in Portland last month. 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

That’s why were encouraged to see millions of dollars in COVID relief funds being used to expand and improve bus service throughout southern Maine.

It’s something we’d like to see across the state, in areas and in ways where it makes sense to have a strong public transportation option for residents. Investing in the system is the only way to make it work for more people, and thus build the ridership necessary to sustain it.

That sort of investment was proving itself prior to the pandemic. Bus ridership in southern Maine grew by nearly a quarter from 2013 to 2018, most of it on Greater Portland Metro’s service, which has gained riders as it dramatically expanded service.

Those gains were disrupted by the pandemic and are only slowly coming back. While the 121,000 boardings in March were Metro’s best month in two years, that’s only 60 percent of the record-breaking high set just before COVID hit.

But it would be a mistake to focus just on getting back the riders who left during the pandemic. The goal for public transportation in southern Maine must be a robust, coordinated system focused on moving people between the biggest population centers and areas of employment.

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Done right, strong public transit will do a lot for people’s quality of life, allowing them to move around more easily while spending less. It’ll take cars off the road, easing traffic and air pollution, and helping Maine do its part to slow down the climate crisis.

It takes investment to build such a system. Buses have to run where people will use them and when they want them, and people need to know that they’ll be where they need to be on time.

In large part, that’s how regional services in southern Maine are spending some of their COVID relief funds, the Press Herald’s Peter McGuire reported last week. While most of the money was spent maintaining service and paying staff, at least some will go toward building a better future.

Unveiled last week, the plan by the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, a collaboration between seven bus services, will use $7 million to attract new ridership. Some of the money will go toward half-price fares for the next nine months, a way to get people to try out a bus service, or to entice them back after a pandemic break.

But nearly half will pay for faster, more regular service and longer hours along busy Metro routes, where an investment in public transit gets you the most bang for the buck. A route in Portland will be extended, and buses will be added to multiple routes in and around Biddeford.

Also, nearly $400,000 will be used to create a new passenger information system, which would make it easier for passengers to plan their routes.

It’s those kind of investments that will allow people to make public transportation a bigger part of their lives, and improve everyone else’s.


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