A bus travels on Congress Street in Portland on April 1. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Regional transit groups that had fallen out over how to divvy up a federal windfall finally united Thursday behind the $8 million proposal to rebuild ridership in southern Maine’s public transportation network.

The agreement announced at the Portland Area Comprehensive Transit System Policy Board, which oversees federal transit funding, frees up $8 million in American Recovery Plan funds to make transit more frequent, reliable and convenient to use in hopes of boosting ridership.

“These projects are vital to rebuilding public transportation ridership after the impact of the pandemic,” said Belinda Ray, director of strategic partnerships at the Greater Portland Council of Governments.

The spending plan approved Thursday was the same one four transit agencies objected to in April when they refused to sign paperwork needed to free up the funds. Biddeford Saco Old Orchard Beach Transit, Casco Bay Lines, the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority and South Portland Bus Service said they didn’t have enough information to sign and had been left out of the decision-making process.

None of the agencies responded to emails Thursday night seeking an interview about why they now had decided to sign the agreement on how to spend the money.

The funds will go to the Greater Portland Metro bus system, Biddeford Saco Old Orchard Beach Transit, Casco Bay Lines, Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, South Portland Bus Service and York County Community Action Corporation.


The deal gives $2.9 million to Metro to increase bus frequency, extend hours of service and introduce microtransit service in Falmouth and $882,000 to York County Community Action Corporation to add another bus to the Southern Maine Connector route.

The deal allocates $1.1 million for half-price fares on Biddeford Saco Old Orchard Beach Transit, Metro and South Portland buses for a promotional period in 2023 and $1 million to Casco Bay Lines to offset pandemic-related operational losses and the rail authority to provide discounted Downeaster fare promotions.

Transit agencies across the country have enacted fare promotions to recapture ridership lost during the pandemic and to provide financial relief for lower-income front-line workers who have relied on their services during the pandemic, according to Greater Portland Council of Governments.

The deal earmarks $500,000 to buy traffic signal priority equipment for buses on Portland’s Forest and Washington avenues, which allows buses on these corridors to move faster, and $380,000 to develop a passenger information system with real-time online maps and service alert system.

In March, after a seven-month application process, the policy board of the regional transportation system voted 11-9 to approve the spending plan. The money came from the American Rescue Plan Act, passed last year.

The policy board vote should have been the last word on where the money would be spent. But to get the funds, the five regional transit agencies and the Maine Department of Transportation must sign a required letter telling the Federal Transit Administration how the money will be spent.

Only Metro signed the letter – the DOT said it didn’t object to the spending plan but said it traditionally is the last agency to sign – leaving the funding program in limbo, with no clear time line to resolve the impasse, and riders looking forward to saving some money with half-priced fares amid increasing inflation out of luck.

The dispute stemmed from policy differences about how to invest federal relief funding. More than $60 million has flowed into the region since 2020, with most spent subsidizing bus, ferry and rail operations hurt by the loss of riders and fare revenue from the pandemic.

The funded projects were selected through a third-party scoring process. Six of the seven transit operators in Greater Portland voted against the plan in March, saying there was not enough information to make the right decision and that they weren’t consulted.

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