A METRO bus makes a stop on St. John Street in Portland. The service is putting some proposed route changes in the city on hold while it participates in a regional transit study. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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Greater Portland METRO is halting a proposed overhaul of bus routes on the Portland peninsula to contribute to a larger regional transit study.

This pause follows some public opposition to the proposed route changes.

James Fereira is one of the residents who expressed opposition to METRO’s plan. He said the Route 8 bus that many West End residents depend on was being rerouted away from them and the services many of them require. 

The Greater Portland Council of Governments is planning a long-term series of recommendations to improve public transportation in southern Maine. Greater Portland METRO, one of six transit providers in the region, had been planning to overhaul its bus routes on the Portland peninsula, but will temporarily shelve those changes and participate in the study. (Courtesy GPCOG)

“We were really concerned about our lifeline being cut,” he said, specifically citing people who live in places like 100 State St., an affordable apartment building that prioritizes elderly and disabled tenants. 

“We feel like this process from the get-go was not particularly equitable, it did not take into account us as the primary stakeholders,” Fereira said. ”We thought our voices were being left out.”

In an April 1 press release announcing METRO’s decision to shelve the rerouting proposal while it participates in the regional study, Executive Director Greg Jordan said a transit network functions best with comprehensive and integrated plans.

“We’ve heard many of our riders living on the peninsula tell us how important it is to maintain door-to-door services for people with mobility challenges,” Jordan said. “To best meet those needs and build a better overall transit system that attracts new riders, we know we’ll achieve better outcomes if we opt for a regional approach.”

The Transit Tomorrow study by the Greater Portland Council of Governments is a long-range public transportation forecast, looking forward to 2050. It includes bus routes operated by METRO, the South Portland Bus Service, Biddeford-Saco-Old Orchard Beach Transit, the Regional Transportation Program, York County Community Action Agency, and the Lakes Region Explorer; the Amtrak Downeaster commuter rail, and the Casco Bay Lines ferry service.

The study will recommend changes to routes to improve ridership, examine opportunities for increased efficiency, and explore opportunities for on-demand services for riders in lower-density areas.

METRO released its set of proposed route changes in December, with the stated goal of creating a “bi-directional circulator route” that would add additional stops at “key destinations” to attract new riders. The proposal also called for adjusting other stops to improve service in “growing areas of the peninsula.”

However, METRO received significant pushback to the loop proposal in public and stakeholder meetings, and via a survey. The service said riders expressed concern that the circulator route would affect older adults and those with disabilities by requiring more walking to destinations in several areas on the peninsula.

The proposed changes were supposed to be finalized this spring and take effect in late 2022. Instead, proposals will be part of the Transit Tomorrow plan, also slated to finalized in 2022.

Chris Chop, transportation director at GPCOG, said METRO’s decision to pause the route changes will help improve public transit and allow the study to evaluate the entire regional bus network. He said the study will have an inclusive public engagement process.

Chop said it is critical for all agencies to work together on plans like this, which is why METRO’s decision to halt its changes was important. “We are better together than we are apart,” he said.

Rick Harbison, project manager for the study, said there are four components, each with its own set of action items, short-term and long-term goals. The first aim of the plan is to make transit easier overall, including improving the customer experience and removing barriers to transit.

The second is to create more frequent connections.

The third is improving rapid transit. Chop said GPCOG has identified “rapid transit corridors” where there may be opportunities for commuter rails or even light rails in the future. He said this would potentially include connectivity between Portland and other communities, including Brunswick, Gorham, North Windham, and others.

The final component is land use and promoting transit-friendly places that are urban centers with the density to support these services. These places would also be walkable since most public transportation users generally have to walk some distance to their stop.

Possible recommendations, Harbison and Chop said, could include bus-only lanes at various points in the day with dedicated bus traffic lights, and improved stations that are spaced further apart so buses would have to stop less often.

Harbison said the study would set up the Portland area for future federal funding since priority is given to projects that have specific plans ready to go.