A bus travels on Congress Street in Portland on April 1. Southern Maine public transit agencies announced this month that they would lower fares and expand services using $7 million granted to the region through the American Rescue Plan Act, but the funds have been held up because not all transit agencies agree with the plan. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

A funding dispute between public transit agencies in Greater Portland has sidelined an $8 million federal relief package that would fund a nine-month, partial public bus fare holiday and other service improvements.

Bus, train and ferry operators opposed to spending items in the package have withheld their signatures from a standard letter required to release the money. The standoff among the six agencies that need to sign the letter – only Greater Portland Metro has signed it so far – leaves no clear path forward for the regional overseers of federal transit funding. It also reveals flaws in how the region manages and coordinates transit.

“We need all parties to sign. Historically, getting this letter signed has been more of a formality,” said Chris Chop, transportation director at the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, or PACTS. “This is new territory. There will be opportunities for coordination in the future, but I don’t know where it goes now.”

Hank Berg, general manager of the Casco Bay Lines ferry service, said through a spokesperson that PACTS and the Greater Portland Council of Governments, or GPCOG, have agreed to meet with the transportation agencies next week to discuss the process used to determine how to spend the federal funding. He said the ferry operator is among five transit agencies that have not signed the letter, and that it wants to wait until after next week’s meeting to decide whether it will do so.

“We are waiting to hear back from GPCOG – really PACTS – as to an exact day and time they are able to meet,” Berg said.

In March, after a seven-month application process, the policy board of the regional transportation system voted 11-9 to approve $7 million for long-term projects intended to speed up bus service in Portland, Biddeford and York County, cut fares in half for nine months, improve information for riders and make other improvements. Another $1 million was allocated to help cover ferry and rail expenses. The money came from the American Rescue Plan Act, passed last year.

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Supporters of the package said the region needed to make long-term improvements that will attract new riders and prevent future revenue shortfalls likely after federal relief money runs out next year.

The policy board vote should have been the last word on where the money would be spent. But in order to receive the funding, six agencies – Greater Portland Metro, South Portland Bus Service, Biddeford-Saco-Old Orchard Beach Transit, Casco Bay Lines, the Downeaster passenger rail service and the Maine Department of Transportation – have to sign a required letter telling the Federal Transit Administration how the money will be spent.

So far, only Metro, in line to receive almost $4 million for transit improvements, has signed the letter. That leaves the funding program in limbo, with no clear time line to resolve the impasse. Meanwhile, the delay hurts agencies such as Metro that want to get a head start on improvements, as well as riders looking forward to saving some money with half-priced fares amid increasing inflation.

“The letter overall has remained unsigned to this date,” Metro Executive Director Greg Jordan said. “That is where it is. It is holding up the improvements we want to start making, the fare reduction we want to implement to incentivize new riders to return to transit. It shouldn’t be taking this long.”

TRANSIT AGENCIES NOT ON BOARD

The funding dispute partially stems from policy differences about the best way to invest federal relief funding. More than $60 million has flowed into the region since 2020, and the vast majority has been spent subsidizing bus, ferry and rail operations hurting from the loss of riders and fare revenue two years into the pandemic.

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The six projects in the package, including a $2.8 million redesign for some of Metro’s bus routes, were selected through a third-party scoring process. The package, which included more than $855,000 to support the Downeaster and nearly $178,000 for Casco Bay ferries, was recommended by PACTS’ regional transportation committee.

Six of the seven transit operators in Greater Portland voted against the relief package at the March meeting. Many said there was not enough information to make the right decision, and that transit operators were not consulted to provide a firm basis for the funding recommendations.

Four of the transit agencies that voted against the package are withholding their required signatures on the so-called “split letter” to release the funding.

“I do have a lot of questions with the process, and I do not agree it was collaborative or cooperative,” said Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which oversees the Downeaster.

Quinn said she hasn’t signed off on the funding because she still has technical questions she wants answered, a standard process for complicated funding matters.

“What I want right now is some clarification – I have some questions about the split letter, and once I get the questions answered, I will decide what I will do at that time,” she said.

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Even after months of work, Quinn said she was caught off-guard when her agency’s funding request was cut back in the spending option selected by board members. Up to $3.8 million from the total should have been available to continue subsidizing existing transit, she said.

“Arbitrarily, a packet showed up with different numbers in it, and it was voted on,” Quinn said. “We determine our needs here at (the rail authority). For someone else to say, ‘We’ll give you this (funding) instead,’ without understanding the impacts on any of the agencies, I did not approve of that process.”

LEADERS CALL FOR A DO-OVER

Chad Heid, general manager of Biddeford-Saco-Old Orchard Beach Transit, also voted against the proposal and has not signed the letter. More discussion and research is needed to determine whether the selected projects represent the best possible use of the funding, he said in an interview.

“I don’t necessarily need the money to be reprogrammed. What I am saying to say is we want this money to be beneficial to the region, and I don’t think we are there yet,” Heid said.

The money does not need to be obligated until late 2024, and agencies are currently working together to better align schedules and services, he added.

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“In order for this money to be distributed, the transit agencies need to be coordinated and (PACTS) and transit agencies need to work together,” Heid said. “An 11-9 vote reflects that coordination and facilitation (are) not complete.”

Donna Tippett, head of the South Portland Bus Service, said Wednesday that the funding hasn’t been released because the transit agencies have to meet first.

“We are waiting to meet to discuss the projects and the funding, and how to coordinate the projects and the funding, and how to coordinate things so we are all on the same page with the timeline and whatnot,” Tippett said.

MaineDOT said it has no objections to the board-approved funding but is traditionally the last agency to sign split letters.

MANY AGENCIES FOR SMALL REGION

Part of the issue is the transit quirks native to Greater Portland. In many cities far larger than Portland, just one or two organizations are “designated recipients” that receive and spend federal dollars and are obligated to sign the required split letters. In the Portland area, six individual agencies are obligated to sign the document, an unusually high number for a metropolitan area of its size.

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Further delaying the money could put the region as a whole at a disadvantage, said Jordan, the Metro executive director. Agencies have enough federal relief money to subsidize fare-starved public buses, trains and ferries through April 2023.

Even if the federal relief money were reallocated to add a year or more of cushioning, it would leave the agencies in a static position without new routes, technology or other improvements when the money runs out, he said.

“The PACTS Policy Board took appropriate action on March 24, and we need to move that forward,” Jordan said. “One of the things I really fear is the long-term budget deficits if we don’t get ridership and fare revenue back up to where it needs to be.”

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy contributed to this report.


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