A greater Portland Metro bus emerges from the wash at the depot on Valley Street in Portland in this March 2020 photo. At the start of the pandemic, buses began a twice-daily disinfection routine in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Ridership on buses and trains in Maine remains between 30 percent and 50 percent lower than before the COVID-19 pandemic, with public transit operators racing to match systems to changing rider habits before federal aid runs out.

The slow recovery fits with a national trend of lower usage of public transportation, but stands in stark contrast to car travel here, which has nearly returned to levels seen prior to the pandemic. It also comes as gas prices have risen dramatically in recent weeks, with the average price for a gallon of gas in Maine sitting at $4.22 as of Thursday.

A robust public transportation system could provide cheaper alternatives to Mainers struggling with high prices. Greater investment in buses is also a key component of the state’s climate goals. But the success of public transit depends in part on how many people use it. Growing ridership means overcoming new norms around commuting and travel.

While Maine’s rural geography has historically posed challenges for public transit, some systems were seeing success prior to the pandemic’s onset. Greater Portland Metro, which serves Portland as well as towns from Saco to Brunswick, saw ridership climb 45 percent from 2013 to 2019.

But ridership in the Portland area was cut nearly in half in 2020 with the onset of the virus and it has been slow to recover in 2021. Other forms of transit in Maine, such as the Amtrak Downeaster, saw similarly dramatic drops amid a national trend of declining public transit use.

At the start of the pandemic, the drop in travel was not limited to public transit. Mainers drove significantly less as more people worked from home and eschewed social gatherings. The switch to telework among state employees alone was estimated to save 233,000 pounds of carbon emissions per week in 2020.

But vehicle usage has largely rebounded in the past year, with vehicle miles traveled estimates from the Maine Department of Transportation suggesting that recent car travel is only a few percentage points below from pre-pandemic levels. By contrast, bus and train usage remains down significantly.

There are a range of factors that could explain the slower return of public transit, and public polling on the issue is scant. Although vaccines are widely available and reduce risk of severe illness from COVID-19, the virus has not gone away completely. Masks are still required on public transit under federal rules, although that mandate is likely to end in April.

The pandemic may also have reshaped how people use public transit, said Greg Jordan, executive director of Greater Portland Metro. With more people working from home, he said, commuter ridership may never return to pre-pandemic levels. That has led transit planners to consider moving toward more uniform service through the day with less focus on peak hours.

Greater Portland Metro has been buoyed by federal aid that allowed it to maintain service levels despite lower fare revenue. That will run out in 2023, putting significant pressure on the system. To avoid the possibility of having to cut services, the agency hopes to work with partners and leverage federal funding to adapt services and attract new riders, Jordan said.

When the federal money runs out, the plan is to have built a better system for riders. The Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, for example, is considering projects such as improving accessibility of bus stops and working on transit signal priority to help buses move more efficiently in Portland traffic.

“It’s building back a better system,” Jordan said.