ARPA Service Improvements and Fare Promotion
The pandemic and its effect on METRO
The COVID-19 pandemic had sudden and drastic impacts to the day-to-day lives of most everyone, including those in Greater Portland. People who had commuted to 9-5 office jobs for decades were suddenly working remotely, restaurants became take-out joints, and people avoided enclosed spaces with other people. Needless to say, this had a jarring effect on METRO ridership and transit ridership across the country. Ridership on METRO plummeted to less than a quarter of 2019's monthly totals, eventually settling in at about 40% of 2019 ridership by the end of 2020. And while traffic on highways is back to pre-pandemic levels, Ridership recovery has been steady but slow -- as of December 2022, monthly ridership is at about 64% of 2019 ridership, with no strong signs of a sudden shift back to pre-pandemic commuting patterns.
Transit systems across the country have had to adapt to what may be long-term changes to commuting patterns. As many office workers work from home some or all of the time, transit demand during the middle of the day and later in the evenings -- when service industry and other mandatory in-person workers are more likely to be commuting -- may rival the typical AM and PM rush hours.
Temporary fare reduction, schedule improvements, bus stop improvements, and more coming in 2023
In Winter/Spring 2022, METRO applied for federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding for a series of initiatives and service improvements intended to encourage people to take transit after ridership dropped sharply due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In December 2022, the split letter approving the allocation of this funding was signed by all parties, allowing this funding to be allocated for use beginning in 2023. METRO's initiatives were designed to make transit more accessible, more frequent, faster, and more accessible. Each project, with an approximate timeline for implementation, is discussed below.
Temporary half-price fare promotion (Winter/Spring 2023)
Along with our regional transit partners South Portland Bus Service (SPBS), Biddeford Saco Old Orchard Beach Transit (BSOOB), and Casco Bay Lines (CBL), METRO will look to implement a temporary 50% reduction in fares for the majority of 2023. After a year of inflation and high gas prices, a reduction in fare prices will help Greater Portland save money by switching to transit. With a DiriGo pass, a passenger would spend just $1 per trip to ride local METRO routes, and would pay no more than $3 per day or $30 per month thanks to our fare capping system.
Transit Signal Priority (Spring/Summer 2023)
Many people prefer to travel in their car because it is faster than taking the bus. Transit signal priority (TSP) helps level the playing field by prioritizing vehicles that carry more people (namely buses) at traffic signals. Signals can be programmed to turn green faster for an approaching bus, or stay green longer to allow a bus to get through a red light. METRO plans to procure and install TSP systems on Washington Avenue and Forest Avenue in Portland in the spring/summer of 2023, helping Route 2 and Route 9 buses move faster and more reliably along some of Greater Portland's more congested roadways.
Bus Stop Accessibility Improvements (Summer/Fall 2023)
For transit to work for you, you need to be able to get on and off the bus safely no matter where you're going. Many Portland-area bus stops are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), meaning they can be difficult, dangerous, or impossible to navigate for people with mobility needs. In order to be considered accessible, bus stops need to be level, clear of obstacles, and located near safe and accessible crossings so that bus stops on either side of the street can be accessed for both ends of a trip. A regional Transit Stop Access Project (TSAP) was already underway prior to ARPA funds being awarded. METRO, SPBS, and BSOOB are utilizing ARPA funding to increase the number of bus stops to be improved as part of the TSAP project. Construction will likely begin in the spring/summer 2023, with stops being completed on a rolling basis beginning in the summer/fall.
Service Frequency Improvements (Summer/Fall 2023)
In order to provide consistent, all-day service for most commuters, METRO is looking to make improvements to service frequency on several routes:
- Improve all-day Route 7 headways from every 60 minutes to every 45 minutes
- Improve off-peak Route 9 headways from every 60 minutes to every 30 minutes
- Improve BREEZ headways to provide a consistent 60 minute headway throughout the day
Frequency of service is directly correlated to ridership. Headways of 60 minutes on local service are considered "lifeline" service, meaning that most people will not ride unless it's their only option. Improving the all-day frequency of the Route 7 and the off-peak frequency of the Route 9 will help boost ridership in Portland and Falmouth. Improving the BREEZ express service to a consistent hourly headway will help BREEZ users plan their trips more easily.
Service frequency improvements depend not only on funding, but on availability of bus operators. METRO hopes to be able to implement these improvements in the summer/fall of 2023, but this may be delayed if METRO doesn't have enough operators to run the service.
Route Extensions (TBD 2023)
Many METRO routes use our PULSE downtown transit center location as their endpoints. This means that a passenger on the Route 7 would need to transfer to the Route 1 to reach Maine Medical Center or Thompson's Point, and a Husky Line passenger may need to walk to finish their trip to the Old Port. METRO proposes that the Route 7 be extended to Thompson's Point, and the Husky Line be extended to Portland's Eastern Waterfront. This would connect Falmouth passengers with Maine Medical Center and Thompson's Point, and Gorham passengers with access to the Old Port, while connecting the University of Southern Maine's Gorham and Portland campuses to their new Law School building at 300 Fore Street.
Similar to service frequency improvements, these route extensions will require additional bus operators to proceed. METRO hopes to be able to implement these improvements in the summer/fall of 2023, but this may be delayed if METRO doesn't have enough operators to run the service.
Microtransit pilot (Fall/Winter 2023)
METRO currently serves much of East Falmouth with fixed route service that we refer to as the "Falmouth loops". These "loops" serve as the northerly terminus for the Route 7, providing access to Town Market/Route 88 as well as to Oceanview. However, the ridership in these loops are very low, and it is difficult to justify the amount of time it takes to serve these more suburban areas. While fixed route service is ideal for dense, urban areas, it is often challenging to run in suburban areas where the latent transit demand is lower and more spread out. Demand-response transit service, or "Microtransit", aims to solve this issue by serving a large area with a more flexible service. METRO envisions truncating the Route 7 at Shaws in Falmouth Village, then running microtransit services in the coverage area of the existing "loop" service -- and beyond.