A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Portland International Neighborhood

Another noteworthy idea from last week's League of Young Voters debate came from Captain Bill Linnell, an impressive candidate for the City Council's third district seat.

In response to a question about the Portland International Jetport's expansion plans, Mr. Linnell, who lives in the Stroudwater neighborhood adjacent to the airport, suggested that we look into moving regional passenger flight operations to the newly-vacated Brunswick Naval Air Station (BNAS).

The more I think about this idea, the more I like it. The Portland-Westbrook Municipal (PWM) master plan is proposing a $245 million expansion - roughly a 1/4 billion dollar project. Much of the cost would come from expanded runways and parking garages, both of which are challenging and costly to build because PWM has very limited real estate to work with.

Brunswick, on the other hand, already has a longer runway, as well as existing support facilities and plenty of space for new terminal buildings. Our politicians have promised that passenger rail service will be extended within walking distance of the site in the next couple of years, and Brunswick is more centrally-located and convenient for airport passengers from the midcoast, central Maine, and Lewiston-Auburn. It's slightly less convenient for those of us in greater Portland and York County, but most of us are taking the bus or train to Boston when we fly anyhow.

But the most appealing part of the idea would be the redevelopment opportunities that would open up when we streamline our aviation infrastructure. PWM occupies an amount of land that is roughly equivalent to two Baysides - and it's well positioned between the employment centers around outer Congress, the Maine Mall, and downtown Portland. Instead of being something we spend $245 million on, this land could support thousands of taxpaying jobs and households.

Without runways blocking the way, we could build new road and transit connections to relieve automobile congestion in places like Libbytown and Cash Corner. Existing runways and taxiways could easily be adapted into new roads, and new development in the area would easily pay the cost of new and renovated infrastructure: new bridges that connect to I-295 and Thompson's Point, and new parks to rehabilitate the long-suffering wetlands around Long Creek and the Fore River.

It's been done before: during the 1990s, the city of Denver abandoned the old Stapleton airport, which the growing city had crowded out of expanding, in order to build a completely new facility further out. Today, Stapleton is a new urban neighborhood - or rather, several neighborhoods - with thousands of new homes and businesses, as well as huge new parks, all connected with a walkable street grid.

It did take Denver over 20 years to do it. Let's start talking about moving PWM to BNAS now.

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