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November 29, 2017

Private bus operators cry foul over USM-METRO deal

Courtesy / Greater Portland Transit District
Courtesy / Greater Portland Transit District
Map shows the new routes that will be created under METRO's Transit West Expansion initiative with the University of Southern Maine, Gorham and Westbrook.

Four privately owned bus companies are challenging the Portland Metro system's partnership with the University of Southern Maine to expand public bus service to Westbrook and Gorham and offer students unlimited rides.

Maine Public reported that the coalition — which calls itself Taxpayers for Wise Transit Spending and includes VIP Tour & Charter, Northeast Charter and Tour, Custom Coach and Limousine and Cyr Bus Line — alleges the $4.5 million initiative unfairly pits taxpayer-supported entities against tax-paying private businesses.

Custom Coach's five-year contract with USM ends next year, Maine Public reported.

Jason Briggs, vice president of VIP Tour & Charter, said the University of Maine System should have sought bids for the expanded bus service to USM's Gorham campus.

"If the University System was putting a new a roof on a building, as a person mentioned, they'd put it out to bid and have several bids," he told Maine Public. "They'd pick the lowest bidder and the most competent person. And they're not doing that in this case. They're going with Metro."

USM, METRO defend the initiative

In a joint written statement issued Tuesday, USM and the Greater Portland Transit District, otherwise known as METRO, described The Transit West Project as "a multi-agency partnership including the town of Gorham, the cities of Portland and Westbrook, USM and METRO."

"The Transit West Project will expand public transit to a growing region that is experiencing significant housing, development and traffic pressure," they said in their statement. "We should not compare what a private charter company can provide to individual organizations with what a regional transportation system can provide to a growing metropolitan area.

USM and METRO said the Husky Line will be a public transit route that is fully open to the public, with multiple stops in Portland, Westbrook and Gorham and will integrate with METRO's existing transit network. The other elements of the project include introducing a new public transit route between Westbrook and South Portland, simplifying two of METRO's current transit routes and introducing the U-Pass transit pass program for USM students, staff and faculty.

"The U-Pass program will allow USM students, staff and faculty to access the entire METRO transit network throughout the year and will incentivize choosing transit over auto use for a variety of trip purposes," their statement continued. "The U-Pass program offers far greater mobility options than USM's current inter-campus shuttle can provide, including longer services hours, more frequent pick up times, expanded Saturday hours, Sunday service and year-round service."

USM and METRO added that giving students access to the entire METRO system will enable them to get more easily to "local internships, jobs and off-campus housing" and will strengthen "USM's positive impact on the local economy and relevant workforce development opportunities and partnerships that serve business and industry."

The Portland Press Herald reported that Briggs said USM didn't put out a transportation contract for companies to bid on this year, adding that bus operators didn't know about the agreement with METRO until the deal was announced five months ago.

"This time there is no bid put forth. I think that is a great disservice to the state, the system and the university itself," Briggs told the newspaper. "The question is, did they do it correctly, did they do it legally?"

In their joint statement, USM and METRO countered by noting that USM will be using both public and private transportation to meet its needs: "Providing the USM community with access to a regional transportation network is something a private charter company cannot provide. Likewise, a regional transportation system cannot provide charter services like a private company can. USM will continue to use a private bus company for actual charter needs such as transporting athletic teams to competitions. These charter services represent 38% of USM's current contract and will continue."

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