Transit in Portland, Maine, Will Get Smarter but More Expensive

The state’s largest transit agency is scrapping tickets and moving toward a smartphone application, though passengers will still be able to pay for rides with cash.

by Peter McGuire, Portland Press Herald / May 20, 2019
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(TNS) — Maine’s biggest public transit agency plans to increase fares and roll out digital ticketing by early next year.

Greater Portland Metro plans to raise the price for a single ride by 50 cents, to $2, and eliminate tickets and monthly passes in favor of smart cards and a phone app. Riders will still be able to pay with cash.

While prices for individual rides would increase to generate more revenue, Metro also plans to introduce “fare capping,” a system that limits how much riders are charged per month and makes pricing more equitable, officials say. That would reduce costs to some frequent riders, who could pay a maximum of $6 a day and then ride free.

Metro last increased ticket prices in 2010, from $1.25 to $1.50 a ride.

The changes are expected to increase fare revenue by $300,000 to about $2.7 million in 2020, Metro said. It expects to lose some ridership because of the higher fares, but gain some of that back because of other changes intended to enhance access.

“We understand that fare capping might lose some money for the agency,” said Portland City Councilor Belinda Ray, president of Metro’s board of directors. “But we believe that (by) moving to these new platforms where people can pay digitally, we can increase ridership to offset that loss.”

Reactions to Metro’s plan were mixed among riders waiting for buses Wednesday morning at Metro’s Pulse station on Elm Street in Portland.

“I think $2 is too much,” said Maxwell Jennings, who was waiting for a bus to her home near Brighton Avenue. “It’s funny, I take this bus every single day and I’ve never heard of this.”

Other riders thought increasing the fares made sense and would not discourage them from riding, although some, like Esther Kisimba, said it might make it harder for some people to afford the bus.

“A lot of people don’t have $2,” said Kisimba, a daily rider. “For me, I think maybe it is OK.”

The Metro board of directors is expected to vote on the new system next week. The agency is selecting a private company to roll out the new, $600,000 system. While the up-front cost seems low, a private contractor will get annual fees of up to 10 percent of fare revenue, about $150,000 a year, Metro estimates.

Discounted fares for people at least 65 years old and people with disabilities will go up by 25 cents to $1 for a single ride. Students and youths ages 6 to 18 also will pay $1. Digital fares are good for 90 minutes, which is considered enough time to make a bus transfer.

Prices for the Metro Breez, the agency’s commuter shuttle between Portland, Yarmouth, Freeport and Brunswick, will go up by $1, to $4 a ride, with a discounted $2 rate for seniors, disabled people and youths.

The agency will eliminate monthly passes and 10-ride ticket packets. Instead, it plans to cap fares for riders who pay with digital smart cards or a mobile app. Fare capping is supposed to address an inequality in traditional fare structures.

If people can afford to buy Metro’s $45 monthly pass, they get a bulk ride discount, Metro General Manager Greg Jordan said. But many riders who use the bus the most can’t afford that upfront cost and over the month wind up spending more on cash fares, he said.

Under fare capping, riders who pay with a smart card or a mobile app will get a maximum charge of $6 a day or $60 a month to ride the bus. Once they hit that level, they ride for free.

“I think it is going to make a huge difference for riders who have historically paid for their fares with cash,” Jordan said. “It completely levels the playing field in terms of accessibility and in terms of the discount on transit use.”

Transit agencies across the world are moving toward fare capping. Tri-Met, in Portland, Oregon, and Dallas Area Rapid Transit in Texas have put capped fares in place and so has London’s Underground. The New York City subway system is contemplating a similar program.

Metro intends to introduce a mobile app and distribute free plastic smart cards at its offices, grocery and convenience stores, and other locations. Riders can load money onto the card at stores or online, or connect it to their bank account.

The agency plans to make the cards available in as many locations as possible. Bus passes and tickets are now only available at nine local supermarkets, municipal, social service and Metro offices, and the University of New England.

Jordan acknowledges making people aware of the new system will require a big effort.

“We will be working out a really strong communications campaign along this change,” he said. “We recognize that this is a pretty significant change in how we pay fares and there is going to be an education component to it.”

Steve Savage, who lives on Forest Avenue in Portland, said it will take time to get used to the new system, but he supports Metro’s plan.

“I think it’s fair,” said Savage, 67. “It’s going to be a learning curve for everyone.”

Savage buys a 10-ride pass and uses the bus every day to run errands. Digital payment will make it faster and easier to board because riders and drivers won’t have to fumble with paper tickets and transfers at the door, Savage said.

“It will make it go so much quicker,” he said.

Fare increases come on the heels of a series of ambitious expansions and growing ridership for Metro. The total number of annual riders has grown 30 percent between 2015 and last year, to 1.9 million. The agency has contracted with Portland public schools to bus high school students, added a popular commuter shuttle, added routes in Westbrook and Gorham, and installed a transit pass program for the University of Southern Maine.

©2019 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.