2018-01-12 / Community

South Portland officials order full stop on bus merger

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – More than five years after the idea was first broached, and following two significant presentations – in September 2013 and again this past week – the concept of combining South Portland’s public transportation service with Portland METRO is now officially dead.

At a Jan. 8 workshop, several city councilors said they are not opposed to continued talks, but none expressed genuine enthusiasm for the idea, while most adopted the traditional stance of the frugal Maine Yankee, i.e. “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

“Frankly, for this council, I’m not sure we have time to deal with this right now,” said Councilor Adrian Dowling. “We have bigger fish to fry. We’ve got a lot going on. We’ve got actual problems that we need to solve for South Portland. This is not something that’s broken, or that’s at a crisis level that we need to find a solution to it right now.”

Mayor Linda Cohen had even stronger words.

“My mother would have roll over in her grave right now if she thought I was thinking about going back to METRO,” she said.

South Portland was part of the METRO service from its founding in 1966 until 1983, when the plug was pulled based on frequent complaints over the perceived managerial disdain of METRO brass at the time for the needs of residents on the south side of the Fore River.

“We were like the poor relatives living in a shack. It’s kind of hard to get over that,” Councilor Maxine Beecher said of how South Portland fared in the larger system, adding that she was on the council at the time and cast a vote for the split.

“There’s such a thing as getting too big and getting lost,” she said. “At this point, you have to talk long and hard to get me to vote to merge these two bus systems.”

The idea of a unified intercity program was on the table as far back as July 2012 when the council had then City Manager Jim Gailey sign a memorandum of understanding to launch a joint planning effort with METRO. That was followed by a September 2013 presentation by the Greater Portland Council of Governments for a plan that called for also folding in ShuttleBus/Zoom, which serves Biddeford, Saco and Old Orchard Beach.

It was anticipation of that plan getting an official nod that led to the current leadership structure in South Portland. When Tom Meyers retired from his role as South Portland’s director of transportation and waterfront in July 2013, he was not replaced. Instead, harbor and river duties where moved under the umbrella of parks and recreation, while Art Handman, a past president of the New England Passenger Transportation Association, was brought in on a contract basis to make sure buses ran on time until the merger could be finalized.

“I didn’t want to go out and hire someone and then all of a sudden we’re moving toward a consolidation,” Gailey said at the time. “I felt I needed to have some flexibility, in fairness to any individual I might hire.” Handman was hired to a one-year contract and has been on the job ever since. At Monday’s council workshop, it was clear he was not a fan of the latest merger proposal.

“I’m looking for the why. What’s the purpose of all this?” he asked the council. “I have appeared before you at least four times (since 2013) for budget purposes, as well as a couple of times for route expansions and bus stop locations, and in no instance did I get an indication that there was any issue in terms of the quality of our service or the fares that we charge. So, I maintain that’s not an issue.”

METRO has 38 buses and 88 employees who travel 1.2 million “revenue miles” annually on a $10 million budget. Ridership has grown in recent years, from less than 1.4 million individual trips per year to nearly 1.9 million, in part from new lines connecting Westbrook as well as a pilot service to Brunswick, Freeport and Falmouth.

South Portland, meanwhile, has 17 transportation employees in addition to Handman, along with a fleet of seven buses. According to city Finance Director Greg L’Heureux, South Portland’s bus service is looking at a net local operating cost of $783,000 for the 2018-2019 fiscal year, rising to $814,633 in fiscal year 2012.

L’Heureux agreed with METRO General Manager Greg Jordan, who pitched the merger plan at Monday’s meeting, that South Portland stood to save between $180,000 and $190,000 as a cog in the METRO machine.

The 2013 merger plan presented by Greater Portland Council of Governments was followed up by a second regional transit development plan crafted this past year. According to Jordan, this second plan concluded that merging public transportation services in Portland and South Portland would increases service offerings and public awareness, while reducing costs to both cities.

However, Jordan said this 2017 study is only in its first phase and has not yet tackled the logistics of merging administration of the two lines, even though the timeline he presented Monday called on completing a merger by July 1.

Jordan said that in a unified program, METRO would only need six of the seven buses now in the South Portland fleet, because “fewer overall vehicles are needed to operate the unified system.”

Based on an average cost of $500,000 for each new 40-foot bus, and a six-year replacement cycle, Jordan said the one- bus size reductions “means that once every 12 to 14 years, the region will be able to save or re-purpose $425,000 in federal and $75,000 in local funds.”

Other benefits of a merger, he said, include increased competitiveness for state and federal grants, and less overall time spent on paperwork required by the Federal Transit Administration, along with improved maintenance, better progress on environmental sustainability, and improved long-term capital investment and strategic planning.

“It all comes down to better management and cutting red tape,” Jordan said.

A combined service would only require 11 of South Portland’s 15 bus drivers, Jordan said. However, that reduction would have been accomplished by not hiring as many new drivers during a planned service expansion and accompanying fare increase in 2019. Additionally, Jordan claimed current South Portland employees would enjoy a boost in pay and benefits of between 10 and 15 percent as part of METRO.

Had it agreed to the merger, South Portland would have got three seats on an expanded 16-member METRO board of directors. It also would not have been held accountable for any METRO debt incurred before 2018, Jordan said.

Jordan said if South Portland had merged its public transportation department with METRO, net local costs would have drop to $390,136 next year, and grow to $625,104 in 2021.

“The first year would be a bit of a windfall to South Portland due to the timing (of a merger), but we expect annual savings to be in the range of $180,000 to $190,000 per year going forward,” Jordan said, adding that this money could be leveraged into a local match toward federal grants, resulting in between $450,000 and $1.2 million in improved services and/or equipment, depending on the program.

However, Jordan’s calculation accounted for a 2.5 percent annual increase in spending to a total $13.07 million budget by 2020. Meanwhile, L’Heureux forecasted a more restrained 2 percent annual growth in transportation spending for South Portland under its status quo.

“I do agree that there are savings,” he said, noting that South Portland would have pocketed roughly $390,000 in year one of the deal, assuming it joined on July 1, because METRO is on a calendar year budget.

L’Heureux also noted that South Portland would be responsible for 21 percent of the annual METRO budget going forward, based on population and route miles driven in Portland, South Portland, Westbrook and Falmouth. That percent could change as each partner chose to increase or decrease its route miles in the future, and Handman openly scoffed at how shares of the budget pie would be moderated over time, giventhe promise that each METRO community would have control over the number and location of its bus routes.

Handman also said, and many councilors agreed, that with the recognition of shared passes, the two systems are effectively merged now. Hardman said South Portland’s bus service moves about 1,000 people per day, about 10 percent of whom transfer to or from METRO buses. And that does not count students at Southern Maine Community College who need only flash a student ID to make the switch.

Meanwhile, several councilors fretted about what might become of poor city residents who are now allowed to ride for free.

Last year South Portland gave out 3,010 ride passes as part of its general assistance program to low-income residents.

“That is not a service that is now offered in any of the other (METRO) communities, so that would be something that would effectively diminish our savings on an annual basis,” L’Heureux said.

If required to pay for the rides it now gives for free, South Portland would have lost about $40,000 of any cost savings from the merger.

“Also, while our wages are significantly lower than METRO’s, our (employee) benefits are better. So, there’s some concern in regards to how that impacts our employees,” L’Heureux said.

In particular, South Portland bus drivers are part of the Maine State Public Employees Retirement program, while METRO does not offer that plan, he said.

“We’d also want to make sure that our employees maintain the proper seniority that would have had before any merger,” L’Heureux.

Worrying about things like that have created “a morale problem” within the South Portland bus garage, Handman said.

Handman also said Jordan left out of his presentation any mention of a telephone survey done last year of 600 area residents.

“Out of that 600 only one responded that a merger is of some kind of benefit to the region,” he said.

Handman also challenged the notion that a merger would lead to simplified bus routes, passing out a current METRO map as an example of what he feared would become of the current South Portland lines.

“Take a look at the top of that that and tell me if that’s not the most complicated bit of spaghetti you’d ever want to see,” he said. “Try to figure that out as a new rider. Our bus routes don’t have that kind of nonsense. So, I rest my case. It’s ‘physician heal thyself’ in terms of simplicity.”

In the end, most members of the council agreed.

“When the big fish swallows the little fish, the folks who were in the big fish’s belly already, they do well,” said Councilor Claude Morgan. “It’s the little fish that doesn’t do very well in the merger.”

“There may come a day for a merger, but I don’t see it right now,” he added. “The cost savings pale in comparison to the benefits of self control. Yeah, there are some savings, but they’re going to come at a cost, and I’m just not ready to go there yet.”

Morgan, Beecher and Cohen all said they could well remember how, in year’s past, “some not very pleasant people,” would routinely complain to the council that not enough people rode the South Portland buses to make them worth the expense. And they agreed, there was a time when it was not hard to spot a bus slipping by with no one on board but the driver. However, all three councilors agreed the service has been munch improved in recent years and is now widely used.

For others, it was the fact that they can – or depending on the moral viewpoint, should – be used to an even greater degree – warranted not rebuffing METRO completely.

“The long-term problem is that we have way to many cars on the road and we need to improve public transportation,” said Councilor Sue Henderson. “Just looking at this abstractly, we should keep talking. Maybe not about merging, but about what we can do together to improve.”

Even if work is done on additional cooperative ventures, it appears there will be some city councilors in Portland and Westbrook who will be much aggrieved by South Portland’s decision Monday.

“I don’t want to slam the door shut and say no, never, but this is feeling a little but like a hostile takeover,” Dowling said.

In fact, Dowling said, after he was elected in November, but before he was sworn-in in December, elected officials from both Portland and Westbrook called and “asked me to commit my support to this merger.”

“I’m not saying that was improper, but I felt it was a little bit inappropriate,” he said.

Staff Writer Wm. Duke Harrington can be reached at news@inthesentry.com.

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