The pandemic drastically curtailed ridership on public transit like this Metro bus on Elm Street in Portland in February. Four transit agencies have withheld their signatures from a required letter to release $8 million in federal pandemic relief funds, citing issues with the regional process used to decide how the money will be spent. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

A standoff between transit and planning officials in Greater Portland that’s holding up $8 million in federal relief shows no sign of abating, leaving major public bus improvements and a half-price fare holiday in limbo.

Four transit agencies that say they have concerns and questions about the funding package have withheld their required signatures on an official letter needed to release the federal money. The package of improvements was narrowly approved by a regional planning board more than a month ago.

Last week, the agencies sought and were denied a meeting to discuss their issues with officials from the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, or PACTS, which oversees federal transit funding. The agencies said they opposed the funding proposal because they wanted money instead to subsidize operations and took issue with the process to select projects.

The four agencies want to find a solution, said Jessica James, spokeswoman for Casco Bay Lines, the passenger ferry operator and one of the agencies refusing to sign the required document, known as a “split letter.” Other operators withholding their signatures are the agency that runs the Downeaster passenger rail, South Portland Bus Service and Biddeford-Saco-Old Orchard Beach Transit.

“Unlike PACTS, this group of transit providers continue to want to work out a path forward. Without a meeting, these four entities are planning to collectively propose a reasonable path forward in writing to PACTS next week,” James said. “It would seem to me that PACTS is the one who is holding up the disbursement of these funds. Contrary to what has been suggested, our group is working together, shares the same concerns and, ultimately, wants to reach a resolution so that they may sign the letter.”



Meanwhile, planning officials have said the only appropriate venue to discuss or reconsider the funding package is the PACTS Policy Board, which voted 11-9 in late March to approve the spending plan. The package, using $8 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, is for improvements to rebuild ridership, including reconfigured bus routes, new bus stops, passenger information and a half-price fare holiday for nine months. Greater Portland Metro, the region’s largest public bus operator, is set to receive almost $4 million in new funding. Metro is the only agency that signed the split letter.

“There is a clear path forward: The agencies can sign the spilt letter or they can bring back revisiting that decision under the normal rules,” said Kristina Egan, executive director of the Greater Portland Council of Governments, the planning agency that houses PACTS. “We went through that process and decisions were made, and then some transit agencies asked for a special, private meeting. We don’t operate that way.”

Since 2020, the region’s transit agencies have received federal relief funding worth more than $60 million. Nearly all the money was spent to offset fare losses and keep buses, ferries and trains staffed and running. Enough funding remains to keep transit agencies in the black through April 2023.

Last year, the PACTS board set aside the region’s portion of American Rescue Plan funds for initiatives that could rebuild ridership. Supporters argued that the agencies needed to invest to rebuild ridership and finances instead of subsidizing existing operations without major changes. Some transit agencies, including those withholding their signatures, wanted to spend more on subsidies as fare revenue lags behind pre-pandemic levels. They took exception with the way the nearly yearlong process selected projects to fund.

The vote in March should have been the last word on relief funding, but six signatures – the Portland-area transit operators plus the Maine Department of Transportation – are needed on the split letter, which tells the Federal Transit Authority how the money will be spent.



In effect, any one of those six signatories can act as a veto on federal funding decisions already approved by board members, Egan said in an open letter to PACTS committee members last week. In the letter, Egan said it is a problem to have six agencies – an unusually high number – as signatories.

“This is broken,” Egan wrote. “If just one operator is unwilling to compromise, the other agencies and the region are forced to negotiate against themselves to get to a unanimous decision.”

She also traced the conflict back to recent changes that added more people and transparency to the process by which federal transit funds are spent in the region. Before that reform, transit agencies met privately to divide the money among themselves before getting a “rubber stamp” from PACTS, Egan said.

“The outcome of this way of making decisions has produced today’s transit service. It performs poorly against comparable places, especially for bus riders,” Egan said. “We have five separate bus facilities. We have duplicative routes. We have stops and transfers that aren’t coordinated. I believe we are paying more but getting less.”

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