2016-04-15 / Front Page

Sunday bus service set to resume

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — In response to popular demand, South Portland plans to resume Sunday bus service. However, there are some, including the city’s own transportation director, who say the department is struggling to keep up with what it does now.

According to City Manager Jim Gailey, there has been a great deal of demand for resumption of Sunday bus runs, which were suspended several years ago. Doing so will add $153,000 to the city’s transportation budget. However, given other savings, including an expected $50,000 drop in the annual price of fuel, the total budget, as currently proposed, is up $117,518 (or, 10.8 percent), to $1.25 million.

“So, we have priced (Sunday service) out and put that in the budget,” Gailey said at the city council’s budget workshop on Monday, April 11.

Offsetting the increase could be an $80,500 federal grant, bus service director Art Handman said he plans to apply for if the council agrees to fund Sunday runs.

“I try to leverage as much federal money as I possibly can,” he said.

However, while the city is responding to requests for Sunday service, overall ridership is flat, at about 269,000 fares and transfer passes collected per year.

“That’s pretty flat from last year,” Handman said. “It’s flat because of two main things. There’s been a slight decrease in the number of riders we get from (Southern Maine Community College) and a large number of riders we are now not getting from Maine Care, which used to purchase passes from us. Maine Care is now using independent taxicab lookalikes and other things other than buses.”

Meanwhile, the department is running short two drivers, Handman said.

“We’re doing yeoman’s work to try and keep the service gong as best we can,” he said. “Obviously, we can’t institute Sunday service today, but I’m not planning to do that until July or September, depending on the availability of drivers.”

Once put in place, Sunday runs would mirror Saturday service, with service from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

“That’s to start. We may have to tweak it depending on ridership,” Handman said.

However, Augusta Street resident Marilyn Riley, the only member of the public to speak during Handman’s presentation Monday, suggested the city should not add more until it can handle what it does now. She asked the council to hold off on adopting a transportation budget for one month until if can institute a plan for clearing bud stops of snow during the winter.

In a March 26 email to the council, Riley said that just as South Portland strives to exceed federal standards for air and water clarity, it should also try to do better on meeting the tenants of the American with Disabilities Act.

“With your promise to look after our health safety and welfare, should we also require stricter winter maintenance of our bus stops than the minimum required by the federal government?” she asked.

Gailey said the city does have a problem with bus stop access during the winter.

“What we have is kind of the chicken and egg scenario, where crews might open it up, but then the sidewalk plow comes down and plugs is back up again,” he said. “There needs to be a better focus after the snow event, after the sidewalk plow has gone through for its last time. That is something we need to work on to get better at, before next winter.”

However, Handman said the best his department can do is its current practice of dropping riders at the nearest cleared driveway or intersection, if a bus stop is blocked in by snow banks.

“We don’t have the resources or the ability to plow every bus stop. It just isn’t practical,” he said.

“We’ve received a poor review from Marilyn, but other than that I have not received any complaints from anyone,” he added.

The council declined to delay a budget vote for the bus service, but did promise Riley it would look into the snow removal question at a future workshop.

“I personally feel like for the money involved, people get an outstanding service here in south Portland,” said Councilor Patti Smith. “If there’s room for improvement, it’s in making sure people can use the bus. If we have to increase costs in terms of assuring access, I think that is well worth it.”

Meanwhile, chided by Councilor Maxing Beecher for having noting in his budget to resolve the bus driver shortage, Handman said he has requested a statewide survey of bus driver salaries from South Portland’s human resources department.

“I’ve asked for a review pay and benefits package to see if salary adjustments might be required to attract drivers,” he said, noting that bus drivers at Portland’s METRO service make, on average, $2.25 more per hour that their South Portland counterparts.

Handman was hired on a contract basis in 2013 when Tom Meyers retired from his role as director of transportation and waterfront. At the time, Gailey said a permanent replacement was not hired in anticipation of an eventual merger of services with Portland METRO.

Last week, Gailey said that remains the goal, although the process “is moving very slowly.”

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