2016-05-13 / Front Page

City seeks solution to winter bus blues

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLND — The city council has decided two things about its public bus service – that a better job needs to be done on shoveling out city bus stops, and that that time to do something about it is still a long way off.

In a workshop Monday, May 9, the council took up a complaint made by Augusta Street resident Marilyn Riley made at an April 11 meeting. At that session, the council agreed to restore Sunday bus service by adding $153,000 to the annual transportation budget, which, given other adjustments, including an expected $50,000 drop in the price of fuel, is expected to ring in at $1.25 million for the coming fiscal year.

However, Riley suggested that before adding new bus routes, South Portland might do well to take better care of the stops it serves now. At the April 11 meeting, and in a March 26 email, she complained some bus stops remain unshoveled long after winter storms blow through, in apparent violation of the federal Ameri- cans with Disabilities Act.

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 tenants of the ADA rulebook.

“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, at the time.

Although Riley was the only person to complain about the city bus service last year, and only one other complaint was submitted the year before that, city staff took the issue seriously.

City Manager Jim Gailey agreed that the city has a problem with bus stop access during 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 it back up again,” he said at the April 11 meeting. “There needs to be a better focus on 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.”

At the May 9 meeting, Gailey returned with a chart of all of the 124 city bus stops. Of those, he said, 44 are cleared by a two-man winter operations crew, while 52 are located adjacent to drive- ways, crosswalks or side streets. The location of those stops, he said, meets the ADA definition of “reasonable accommodations,” because bus riders can walk a few steps from the bus shelter to the cleared intersection, where the bus will stop during winter. However, Gailey added, that still leaves 28 bus stops that are “isolated” and not readily accessible after a snowstorm.

“Staff has focused on these stops and public works has explored developing a plan to provide more timely maintenance to these stops starting next winter,” Gailey said.

Among the solutions to be devised is what to do about icing. Gailey noted that in addition to simply clearing out bus stops after a storm, concern exists that the ground in and around all bus stops can become treacherous in later winter months, when warm days melt the snow packed on walkways by the city sidewalk plow, only to see those pools freeze over in the evening.

“It’s become clear that we need to focus on making things better, especially with the icing of surfaces. We need to pay more attention to that,” he said.

“The public works department is going to really make this a priority during the coming year, to make sure we are creating safe situations.”

However, Gailey was not ready to move on what he acknowledged might be the easiest and most obvious solution – adding two part-time staffers to the winter maintenance crew at a cost of about $30,000 per year.

“We do not feel as though we have the existing capacity within the manpower to take care of those additional 28 stops,” he said. “However, I’m going to fall short today of asking the council to accept that ($30,000 line item). What I would ask council for is to give staff a little more time. Winter is six months away and there may be other alternatives that we can think of.”

With several weeks left before a final vote on the 2016-2017 municipal budget, councilors agreed to give Gailey that time. Perhaps, some suggested, he might reach out to other communities, even other counties, to see how winter bus stop maintenance is handled.

“We probably don’t have to invent a solution. Quebec is frozen hell for half of the year and not well plowed, but they run an intensive bus service,” Councilor Claude Morgan joked.

The council also agreed that something should be done to improve the service, even though city attorney Sally Daggett issued an opinion stating that the city is virtually immune to a lawsuit should someone slip and fall at one of the unplowed bus stops.

“The general rule in Maine is that municipalities are immune from suit for all tort claims for damages except where immunity is removed by Maine Torts Claim Act, or unless otherwise expressly provided by statute,” Daggett wrote in an May 9 memo.

While the city might be liable under state law for “negligent acts or omissions of performance in street cleaning,” Daggett noted that a 1983 case before the Maine Supreme Court, Goodine v. State of Maine, set a precedent when it declared snow removal does not constitute street cleaning.

“So, there is no exemption to the tort claim immunity for snow removal,” Daggett wrote, adding that even ADA “recognizes that there may be temporary interruptions in access due to winter maintenance or repairs.”

Even so, Gailey promised the city won’t let another winter go by with inaccessible bus stops, just because it can.

“There’s some immunity there, but I don’t think we should rest and just say that we’re immune to everything,” he said. “There is a standard and I think there is a service that we should provide to users of our transit operation.”

Councilors agreed, calling on Gailey to not only develop a plan for the coming winter, but to work with city staff to create something for the next five to 10 years.

“If this is an impediment in the year 2016 it will be an enormous impediment in 2025 as the baby boomers get older,” Morgan said. “This is the time and the opportunity to kind of buckle down and take measures.”

Councilor Patti Smith agreed.

“It’s only a matter of time, gas prices are going to go up. They just will. It’s the nature of oil,” she said. “So, as we see ridership going up and down, I’d really like us to be known as a city that has a great bus route option, so we can compete with other communities as a place where you can choose many ways to get around.”

However, changes could be in the offing that would negate the need for a 10-year plan, at least one crafted by South Portland alone.

The city’s current transportation director, Art 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 put on the payroll in anticipation of an eventual merger of services with Portland METRO.

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

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