Our take: Portland-area transit agencies should stop blocking federal funds

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Somewhere in Washington, there’s $8 million that’s supposed to be funneled to southern Maine to improve public transportation. But the money stays in DC because some local transit agencies refuse to sign a letter formally requesting the funds.

If our transit system was running at a high level and nobody needed the money, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.

But when we have a system characterized by infrequent service, uncoordinated routes and limited hours, this type of bureaucratic obstruction is infuriating.

The standoff occurred when the five transit agencies were unhappy with the results of a majority vote by the Portland Area Comprehensive Transit System Board of Directors, which conducted a public process in over the past year to determine how to spend $8 million designated for the region in the American Rescue Plan Act to improve transit service.

Five agencies – South Portland Bus Service; Biddeford-Saco-Old Orchard Beach Transit; Casco Bay Lines; the Downeaster Passenger Rail Service and the Maine Department of Transportation – failed to sign a letter authorizing the release of funds, blocking a majority vote by the PACTS board. Only Greater Portland METRO, the region’s largest bus service provider, has signed it.

The council, made up of representatives from local governments and planning agencies, asked for proposals which were scored by an independent agency. Apparently, this process was a departure from past practice, where agencies were given federal funds to use in whatever way they chose.

“We determine our needs here,” said Patricia Quinn, director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which oversees the Downeaster. “For someone else to say, ‘We’ll give you this (funding) instead,’ without understanding the impacts on any of the agencies, I didn’t approve of that process.”

But allocating federal funds based on shared regional priorities is what PACTS is supposed to do. Funneling money to half a dozen agencies to spend as they see fit makes no more sense than paying municipalities to build roads without caring what happens to the other side of the municipal boundary. In an open letter to agencies, Kristina Egan, executive director of the Greater Portland Council of Governments, warned that the old method of allocating funds would not force needed changes.

“The result of this way of making decisions produced the transit service of today,” Egan wrote. “I believe we pay more but receive less.”

For transit to succeed, agencies need to increase ridership. More passengers would warrant more convenient routes, more frequent service and more travel options. A majority of the PACTS board has funded projects that would increase ridership. Pouring money into each agency’s budget would only maintain the status quo.

Given that the service we currently have is not good enough, it is fair to question the wisdom of giving so many agencies an effective veto over the spending of federal funds. It’s also fair to wonder if it makes sense for an area as small as Greater Portland to have so many transit agencies, especially when areas like Boston and New York operate with one transit authority. .

Disappointed transit agencies should stop blocking this pot of federal money from coming to Maine and get involved in the regional planning process.

Unreliable public transportation influences where people choose to live, contributing to sprawl and traffic congestion that affect quality of life and property tax burdens throughout the region.

Good public transit can help southern Maine manage growth and meet environmental goals.

But relying on federal funds can only prevent the region from developing a system that works for everyone.


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