If you’re hoping to catch a ride on the bus to your appointment at Maine Medical Center, you may want to plan ahead.
That trip on METRO’s Route 8 bus runs counterclockwise around the entire peninsula, so instead of a 10 or 15 minute ride down the road, you might have to circle Portland to get there, arriving maybe 45 minutes later or more.
James Simpson, a Portland resident, takes METRO rather frequently. He’s gotten pretty good at estimating when certain routes will arrive. Last Friday afternoon, there was a slight delay due to some road work on Forest Avenue, but Simpson wasn’t too bothered about it. It has to be tough sometimes on the bus drivers, he opined.
“Everyone’s got a place to be,” Simpson said. “Drivers have a schedule to keep, passengers have their own schedules.”
For Simpson and other riders, the limitations of certain bus routes can be a hassle — like on METRO’s Route 8, for example, which only operates in one direction. But that could change as soon as this fall, when local transit officials hope to roll out their efforts to improve bus travel in Portlanders and beyond.
Transit companies nationwide are still struggling to fully recover from the challenges posed by the pandemic. But even still, Greater Portland METRO and the Greater Portland Council of Governments (GPCOG) have begun moving forward with an ambitious plan to streamline transit in the region and increase ridership.
The changes to make bus travel more seamless, including route and schedule changes, could be implemented as soon as this fall. The plan, called “Transit Together,” proposes adjustments to frequently traveled destinations like the Maine Mall, Portland Jetport, the town of Falmouth and throughout the peninsula.
May includes the public outreach and feedback portion of the “Transit Together” timeline with a public meeting set for Wednesday, May 17 at 3:30 at the Portland Public Library. A virtual meeting is also scheduled for May 18 at 6 pm.
While the proposed changes — new routes and tweaks to existing ones — are still just “recommendations” at this point, METRO’s Director of Transit Development Mike Tremblay said the expectation is for the vast majority of the changes to happen.
While METRO still needs to conduct planning and preparation, “this is a great time to receive that feedback,” Tremblay said, adding that it could lead to adaptations if there are objections from the community.
Optimizing transit in Greater Portland would be a big improvement for transportation access in the region and also a necessary move to increase ridership while transit services continue to struggle nationwide. Ridership declined through the pandemic, and the resurgence has been slow, leaving transit companies still hovering around 70 percent of total numbers from 2019.
30-year ridership trend data from Greater Portland METRO shows that ridership was climbing each year between 2014 and 2019, starting with an estimated annual figure of 1.5 million riders and nearing 2.2 million by the end of 2019, a period during which METRO made a variety of service improvements. The numbers then saw a stark decline in 2020 and as the pandemic continued, hovering just above an average of 1 million riders.
Among some of the most significant changes for the region, according to Tremblay, is coordinating what he called a “high frequency corridor” of bus routes along Congress Street. By strategically planning four bus routes that all pass through, Tremblay believes passengers would be able to travel across the peninsula with any of the four more frequently.
“All [the routes] run along Congress Street — somebody could get any one of those bus routes over to the West End for example — and one of those buses would come at least every 10 minutes or so, even though none of them are running more frequently than 30 minutes,” he said.
Another proposed change is the addition of another “Route 8” circulating the peninsula, but moving clockwise, in the opposite direction of the current route, reducing travel times for those who use the route and only have one option for the direction it runs.
That change would require somewhere around an additional 50 bus stops, according to METRO’s estimates. METRO is working with the city on how the need for additional stops could impact already scarce parking downtown.
But from the standpoint of the city and of Jeremiah Bartlett, a transportation systems engineer for the Department of Public Works, the prospect of adding stops and bus routes is seen as a positive when it comes to parking and traffic.
“The reality is for this economic future that Portland is laying out, transit is an absolutely critical part of that future. I don’t see this as a negative, I see it as a way for the city to work with our primary transit provider and succeed on these things,” Bartlett said.
METRO’s hope is that three new routes to Commercial Street will be able to address parking issues too, Tremblay said. Currently, there is only one route that goes through the waterfront, but providing more access would at least provide another option for folks who live off the peninsula — between whether they want to drive, walk, bike or use METRO to access the Old Port.
“Paying for parking down there in the summertime can really be a hit to your wallet,” Tremblay said. “You’re going to be spending as much on parking as you are on a lobster roll, right? Providing that option to jump on the bus versus paying $25 to $30 to park in a parking lot hopefully encourages people to take the bus.”
TRUST THE BUS
Getting people to use transit is another piece of the puzzle. The city has “a whole bunch of things in the works” to make transit a better travel option on par with automobiles, according to Transportation Program Manager Bruce Hyman.
One of those is implementing transit signal priority on Forest and Washington Avenues, which the city of Portland, partnering with GPCOG, hopes to complete in the next year. The priority would hold the green signal at traffic lights for public transit. Buses that pull up to an intersection would communicate with the signal and hold it green so the bus can get through the intersection, Hyman said.
Bartlett did not give specifics about how much infrastructure changes would cost.
Hyman echoed that the city is very pleased with the impending changes from METRO. “The increased frequency, the extensions, they all should contribute to a greater incentive for folks to use transit to get to work, to play [and] get to the downtown, we’re expecting that over the next couple of years,” he said.
Part of the need to entice new riders comes from a possible financial cliff looming next year for METRO, when federal COVID-19 funding (CARES Act) runs out permanently. Those funds were crucial to keep METRO operating throughout the pandemic, officials say, But when they run out, there will likely be more fiscal challenges ahead if the company can’t hike ridership back up to pre-pandemic levels and beyond.
METRO applied for and received over $4 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding through GPCOG, applying the money to bus stop improvements, transit signal priority and a reduced fare promotion, as well as a pilot “Microtransit” program.
Riders can watch for that pilot program next winter, operating primarily in Falmouth. Since it can be increasingly difficult to provide transit access as routes stretch into suburban areas, Tremblay said, the pilot will hopefully work as an alternative to standard routes.
Riders would be able to use an app or call in to METRO to request a ride to anywhere within a given zone — in this case throughout the Portland peninsula and Falmouth.
If successful, it could lay the groundwork for future microtransit or late-night services that could be made available too, Tremblay said, providing options for people to get home from work in the Old Port or after soaking up Portland’s downtown nightlife.