Two years ago, mass transit was on a roll in southern Maine, with growing ridership, new services and attempts to structure new development around public transportation links.

Then the pandemic hit. Service was restricted for months and passengers avoided the bus and train. Transit agencies only avoided financial catastrophe with federal relief.

Maine’s economy has rebounded from the pits of the pandemic, but mass transit has not. Public buses have around half the riders they did in 2019, and still rely on relief funding to avoid layoffs and service cutbacks. Reaching pre-pandemic ridership could take years.

Some regional planners think the only way to get riders back and attract new ones is to invest in transit expansion and innovation.

“We have to enhance and modernize our services to get back to levels of ridership that can sustain transit,” said Kristina Egan, executive director of the Greater Portland Council of Governments. “If we don’t change the way we deliver public transit, we can never recover, which means we will be throwing money into a black hole.”

A portion of the region’s federal relief for transit has been earmarked to examine coordinated routes and timetables between disparate agencies, new on-demand “last-mile” transportation and a rapid transit line west of Portland.

But Donna Tippett, director of South Portland’s bus service, thinks one-time federal money could be spent taking care of immediate needs, such as new vehicles and drivers.

“I’m not against innovation, but I think there are some bread-and-butter things,” Tippett said. Recovery means better service now, not long-term planning, she added. “I just think demonstrating and doing is going to make riders come back.”

UNSPENT MONEY

Transit agencies in and around Portland received $53 million from the CARES Act, passed in the early days of the pandemic as cities and states went into lockdown. About $15 million of that money is unspent and agencies received another $8.1 million from the American Rescue Plan Act this spring. The funding is allocated through a process at the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, including transit agency representatives, that oversees regular federal transit disbursements.

Nearly 90 percent of the CARES funding helps pay to keep buses on the road, drivers behind the wheel and cover other costs. But about $2.3 million – 6 percent of the total – is reserved to innovate and improve transit for long-term ridership.

PACTS last August used that funding to approve a $500,000 study of ways to coordinate and streamline services between seven different transit agencies across the region and examine the feasibility of “micro-transit,” an on-demand service that could link residential areas to high-volume transit corridors. In July, planners agreed to use relief money to pay for an $800,000 feasibility study of rapid transit, such as light rail or dedicated bus lanes, between Portland and Gorham.

Those studies are just some of the possible regional service expansions and improvements. A 30-year planning report released this spring laid out more than three dozen proposals for new bus and train services, to bus shelters and garages, regional ticketing and fare policies, real-time passenger data, and more.

Greater Portland Metro, the region’s largest public transit agency, finished 2019 busing 2.1 million people, a record-breaking year. During the coronavirus, the bus agency cut back service dramatically, eliminated fares and lost nearly all of its ridership.

Full service resumed last August and fares were reintroduced in October, along with a new electronic ticketing system it shares with other public bus services. But passengers haven’t returned – Metro’s ridership is just 40 percent of what it was two years ago, said Executive Director Greg Jordan.

In Metro’s case, some regular commuters may be working from home or have moved out of transit range. Before the pandemic, about 20 percent of its riders were Portland Public School and University of Southern Maine students, whose regular commute was replaced by remote and hybrid learning.

STRATEGIC THINKING

Waiting and hoping those riders return isn’t enough, Jordan said. The region needs to think strategically to make transit more accessible, reliable and efficient, and that means investment from the windfall granted by the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan.

“I don’t think we are going to sit here and burn down the CARES Act money through 2022 and miraculously we will be back to the same level by 2023,” Jordan said. “I am confident ridership is going to come back, but (it) is going to come back with significant improvements in our system and our network and we are going to have to devote resources to it.”

If efforts to build a better system aren’t pursued, transit agencies could shortly find themselves in a financial crunch, Jordan said. Fare revenue covered less than 24 percent of the agency’s $11 million operating budget. Direct payments from member communities – Portland, Falmouth, Westbrook, Yarmouth and Brunswick – covered around 33 percent.

“I don’t want to go back to municipalities and ask for more money because CARES has run out and our ridership is still low,” Jordan said.

About 44 percent of U.S. public transit agencies said relief funding prevented a complete service shutdown, according to a July survey from the American Public Transportation Association. Almost 80 percent reported the funding helped them avoid layoffs and 62 percent said they avoided service cuts.

Even with aid, transit agencies are projected to have a $13 billion shortfall in 2023, the public transportation association reported in January. In the first four months of 2021, nationwide, transit ridership was down 56 percent compared to the year before.

“While impacts will vary across transit agencies, the projected budget shortfall is expected to result in significant reductions in transit capital spending if funding needs are not met,” the report said.

NEEDS IN SOUTH PORTLAND

In South Portland, the needs are immediate. The agency recovered about 55 percent of its ridership, but also restricted service on a bus route that runs to Southern Maine Community College, said Tippett, the agency director.

Two of the city’s seven buses are out of commission and it needs to hire two people to reach a full complement of 14 drivers. On top of that, supply chain disruption means the city has trouble getting the parts and equipment it needs for regular maintenance.

With all of those factors at play, Tippett thinks investments should be made in improvements now, rather than future expansions.

“When you can offer higher frequency and reliable service and you have the drivers to drive the routes, I think that is what will bring people back and keep them there,” she said.

A train conductor stands at the door awaiting the Amtrak Downeaster’s departure from Old Orchard Beach on Saturday morning. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Amtrak Downeaster has recovered well, in comparison to others. As of July, it had 68 percent of the riders it did at the same point in 2019, said Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, the agency that operates the service.

Despite its strides, things are still not back to normal. The rail line still relies on subsidies included in the federal CARES Act and a relief package passed last December. Riders have returned, but commuters who used the train between Brunswick and Portland – about a third of its pre-pandemic customers – have not.

“Our first train in the morning was full, standing room only. Now it averages anywhere from 60 to 80 people,” Quinn said recently. “On a regular Tuesday, we would have close to 200 monthly pass-holders ride – yesterday we had 20.”

The agency adjusted its schedule so fewer trains run during afternoon rush hour, hoping to attract different customers.

“We are monitoring ridership very carefully,” Quinn said. “We’re just trying to be responsive. That is our motto going through this, to maintain flexibility and respond to the market as it rebounds.”

As far as long-range planning, the Downeaster is examining moving its Portland station to the main rail line, adding a stop in West Falmouth and improving tracks. But right now, it is still in survival mode, Quinn said.

“The ridership loss was devastating to us. One of the things we were proud of was a high cost recovery from the farebox – about half our expenses were offset by fares,” Quinn said. “When those dried up and expenses didn’t go down at all, it left a big gap.”

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