2012-07-20 / Front Page

Technology helps city bus riders

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

The work Tom Meyers has been doing to improve South Portland’s public transportation system is tough to break down in one easy sentence. It’s easy to get lost in alphabet soup acronyms when one discusses Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) technology and Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) set up by the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System (PACTS) and the Greater Portland Council of Governments (GPCOG).

So Meyers broke it down for the South Portland City Council in a meeting on Monday, July 16 using an easyto understand example. Automatic Vehicle Location technology allows someone to open up Google Maps on his or her smartphone or laptop and see exactly where their bus is located.

As it is right now, the map would show when the bus is scheduled to arrive. But say, for example, the bus is stuck in morning traffic on the Casco Bay Bridge. Meyers said the technology would allow someone to pull out an iPhone, Blackberry or laptop at the kitchen table, see that the bus is running a little behind, and, as Meyers said, maybe “have that extra cup of coffee.”

The South Portland City Council unanimously voted to authorize City Manager Jim Gailey to sign two memorandums of understanding that lay out the city’s financial obligation as part of the Portland Area Comprehensive Transit System’s effort to make future improvements to public transportation systems around the Portland area.

The first document concerned the Automatic Vehicle Location and Computer Aided Dispatch technology. Meyers said the exact cost of implementing that technology still isn’t known. But in his position paper, Gailey said, “the City (sic) has already applied for and received grant funds for this project;” $96,660 will come from those grant funds, while the city of South Portland will match with $27,140, for a total of $123,800 to spend on the project.

The council also authorized Gailey to sign a memorandum of understanding that will begin the process of creating a regional branding and marketing campaign for public transportation systems in cities and towns such as Portland, Westbrook, Biddeford, Saco and Old Orchard Beach.

Each municipality within the Greater Portland Council of Governments designated $500 per bus to the marketing campaign. For South Portland that commitment translates to a total cost of $3,500. Meyers said the effect of the design will make each city’s service “look like an integrated, seamless public transportation system in the greater Portland area.”

“I think it makes sense,” said Councilor Tom Coward of the shared marketing campaign. “We are integrating schedules and our fare structures, we might as well make it more recognizable as the regional transportation system we hope it becomes.”

In a memorandum he wrote to Gailey, Meyers said, “The overarching goal of these two projects is improved customer service.”

Meyers hopes the changes will increase ridership by capturing, as he put it, “riders who have a choice,” and make riding the bus more convenient for those who already use public transportation.

South Portland Mayor Patti Smith said she frequently takes the bus to work and joked that, in the future, if she is running late, the new technology will allow her to know exactly how late she would be.

But Smith noted another potential benefit of the changes. Traffic, she said, is an issue many constituents are concerned about in the city, and Smith hopes increased ridership will translate to traffic relief during rush hour.

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