If we don’t bring more ambition to bear on our vision for public transit, we cannot hope for a well-oiled, viable and attractive system – nor the many social and environmental benefits such a system would confer on our communities.

On Friday, after eight long months of standstill, six regional transit agencies came to an agreement on how to mete out a package of federal money for services throughout Greater Portland. The package – meant for what have been referred to as “vital” public transportation projects using American Recovery Plan funding – was itself the result of a seven-month application process.

Never mind that none of the agencies involved responded to the Press Herald to say why they had finally decided to sign the agreement, or what assurances were given to get it over the line; let’s consider the bigger picture. Some $60 million in funding has been funneled into public transit in our region over the past two years. The tranche in question, while worth welcoming and wrongly waylaid until now, is $8 million in size.

The funding is mostly being used for unexciting aims: offsetting losses and rebuilding ridership to pre-pandemic levels. That the state of bus, train and ferry ridership in southern Maine was fragile enough before the pandemic to be totally knocked off course by it comes as no surprise.

While that restoration has to happen, much more is needed.

Fare holidays, one of the uses identified for the money, will do nothing to improve fleets, bus corridors or staffing levels. Reducing the cost of public transit for the people struggling to cover it is laudable, but won’t improve the service they rely on. When it comes to recruitment of passengers, a slashed bus ticket does nothing for the person already not catered to by existing routes or timetables, or the person unwilling to walk to the bus stop on an unlit, uneven sidewalk on a winter evening.


The deal also covers some increased bus frequency in Portland, more service hours; an intriguing if less-than-pressing sounding “microtransit service” in Falmouth; a new bus on the Southern Maine Connector route; traffic signal equipment for buses in Portland, and the development of a real-time online map and service alert system.

Our systems of public transit require all this and more. And, in some respects, they require less; more basic scaffolding again. They call for a robust mix of infrastructure and urban design that supports walking or biking as bridging measures. If you’re a reader of this newspaper, you’ll know just how inhospitable the streets of Maine’s cities and towns have become to anybody not behind the wheel of a vehicle.

Greater Portland and its surrounds aren’t alone in not having this foundation; few if any American cities or suburbs can claim to have a set of networks that interact properly and provide people with options. But that doesn’t mean we can wait to start building it for ourselves.

At a glance, part of the problem where we live is that there is too much fragmentation and too narrow a focus on independent services. Seven operators in Greater Portland is six too many. Streamlining and unifying these bodies under a single transit authority would be a bold and efficient step in the right direction (and close off the potential for the repeat of an unseemly impasse like the one just cleared). Observing political or municipal boundaries within a relatively small geographical zone militates against basic cooperation – if not against travel itself – and makes no sense.

It’s not that people won’t or don’t want to do it; Bus ridership in southern Maine grew by nearly a quarter in the five years to 2018, in large part thanks to expanded services. So let’s keep expanding. And let’s get on the same page about how to do it.

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