Somewhere in Washington, there is $8 million that is supposed to be on its way to southern Maine to improve public transportation. But the money is sitting in D.C. because some local transit agencies refuse to sign a letter formally requesting the funds.

If our public transit system were operating at a high level and nobody needed the money, this might not be such a big deal.

But when we have a system characterized by infrequent service, uncoordinated routes and limited hours, this kind of bureaucratic obstructionism is maddening.

The standoff occurred when the five transit agencies were dissatisfied with the results of a majority vote by the policy board of the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, which conducted a public process over the last 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 — have not signed a letter allowing the funds to be released, blocking a majority vote of the PACTS board. Only Greater Portland METRO, the largest provider of bus service in the region, has signed it.

The board, made up of representatives of local governments and planning agencies, requested proposals that were scored by an independent agency. Apparently, this process was a departure from past practice, where the agencies were allocated federal funds to use in any way they chose.


“We determine our needs here,” said Patricia Quinn, executive 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 did not approve of that process.”

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

“The outcome of this way of making decisions has produced today’s transit service,” Egan wrote. “I believe we are paying more but getting less.”

In order for public transportation to succeed, the agencies need to increase ridership. More riders would justify more convenient routes, more frequent service and more travel options. A majority of the PACTS board funded projects that would boost ridership. Pouring money into each agency’s budget would just maintain the status quo.

Given that the service we have now is not good enough, it is right to question the wisdom of giving so many agencies an effective veto on spending federal funds. It’s also right to question whether it makes sense for a region as small as Greater Portland to have so many transit agencies, especially when regions like Boston and New York City manage with just one transit authority.

The disappointed transit agencies should stop blocking this pot of federal money from coming to Maine and engage in the regional planning process.

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

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

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

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