Bus fares set to climb

Transport Watch
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  January 27, 2010

Last week, we reported on several transportation issues that are up for discussion in and around Portland (see "Getting the Green Light On Transport," by Deirdre Fulton, January 22). One of the most immediate debates didn't make it into that column: local bus fares and ridership, and whether (and how) to raise those numbers.

Here's a quick primer: The Greater Portland Transit District (also called METRO) oversees bus service in Portland, Westbrook, Falmouth, and the Maine Mall area of South Portland. Its leadership is comprised of five representatives from Portland, three from Westbrook, and two from Falmouth; Portland city councilor Kevin Donoghue serves as president of the board. Right now, METRO is currently hurting — badly — for money, a problem which has three causes. First, ridership is down, plain and simple. Secondly, the future of federal subsidies that reward transportation entities for using compressed natural gas (a cleaner fuel) is up in the air. And third, the state has been paying for MaineCare patients' bus passes (free travel to medical appointments), a bill that the federal government formerly footed; with the state budget in such complete disarray, it's unclear whether that program will continue.

An immediate, but perhaps short-sighted, way to up revenue is to raise fares. And at the last METRO board meeting, the METRO finance committee recommended doing just that. The proposal is as follows:

• Single Ride: $1.50 (up 20 percent from $1.25)

• 10-Ride Pass: $14 (up 27 percent from $11)

• Monthly Pass: $45 (up 20 percent from $37.50)

But not everyone supports that.

"If we raise monthlies and cut service, I fear we'll fall into a downward spiral and undercut our ridership and solvency," Donoghue says. He proposes increasing the single-ride and 10-ride fares, while decreasing the monthly pass fare to $30. He stands in opposition to the majority of the METRO board, which is largely supportive of the finance committee's plan.

The relatively new Maine Alliance for Sustainable Transportation, made up of local alt-transit and environmental organizations, also opposes the monthly-fare increase. It recommends keeping the monthly fare where it is, while increasing the other two options.

"METRO desperately needs to increase its ridership," a MAST point paper on bus issues reads. "A blanket increase in fares will inevitably have the opposite effect, and cause further budget strains down the road. We believe METRO needs to get creative and proactive in increasing the overall number of riders using the system."

Some of those ideas include: continuing and expanding the pilot program that provides 50-percent discounted METRO passes to schoolchildren; working with the city and other large local employers to encourage employee purchases of METRO passes; continue Free Fare Fridays; and reconfiguring routes and schedules. (South Portland's bus service, which connects with METRO, is at present not considering fare changes.)

These problems (and their purported solutions) aren't unique to Maine. At the end of December, Metropolitan Transportation Authority budget cuts in New York threatened the program that offers free and reduced fares to city public-school students. The Washington DC Metro system has proposed fare increases to fill a $40 million budget shortfall. In August 2009, a study by the national non-profits Transportation for American and the Transportation Equity Network found that 10 of the country's 25 largest transit networks are raising fares by more than 13 percent.

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