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

Monday, February 11, 2008

We don't want what they're serving

The lead editorial in Saturday's Portland Press Herald, titled "Too Many Cooks in Transportation Planning," criticized Maine's Department of Transportation and the Maine Turnpike Authority for their uncoordinated three-legged race to widen Portland-area highways. The editors note that three separate studies underway - one on the Turnpike, one on I-295, and one on commuter transit - deal with the same problems, don't acknowledge each other's existence, and come to completely different conclusions.

Not only are there too many cooks, but most of the cooks involved are trying to serve us stale ideas that will literally make us, our economy, and our environment ill.

A bureacracy that dates back to 1941, the Turnpike Authority is well past its retirement age.

It's the strongest endorsement I've seen in favor of banishing the Turnpike Authority and gutting MDOT. It also takes the Maine Dept. of Transportation to task for marginalizing transit planning in the expensive failure of their I-295 corridor study.

After three years of thinking about widening I-295, the state is only just now beginning to study transit in the exact same corridor - and even within MDOT's bureaucracy, we get the distinct impression that the intelligent people working to promote transit are consistently short-funded and marginalized by the crushed stone-age Neanderthals in charge.

With a Governor who's supportive of protecting our quality of place and making Maine's government more efficient, it seems awfully unlikely that our transportation agencies can continue tripping over themselves to pave Maine.

Too many cooks in transportation planning: Plans to widen I-295 and the Maine Turnplike should not be made separately.

Portland Press Herald Editorial:
Saturday, February 9, 2008

It's not as if there's been a lack of planning.

Restructuring tolls that would be used to pay for a widening project on the Maine Turnpike is under consideration.

Plans to add lanes and improve entrance and exit ramps on Interstate 295 are on the drawing board.

A $1 million study is under way to probe the feasibility of a commuter rail service in greater Portland.

The problem is more a lack of coordination.

Maine has separate bureaucratic structures that oversee the turnpike and rest of the state's road system. Alternative transportation gets some consideration, but there is little evidence that the entire transportation picture is viewed as a whole.

The decisions made now will have profound effects on the region's residents in the near and distant future, influencing more than commuters' travel time.

They will also affect future land-use and development choices, dictating where southern Maine residents will live and work as well as what they will have to support with taxes.


A proposal by Gov. Baldacci to merge the Department of Transportation with the Maine Turnpike Authority is under review by a working group and will not be part of the current transportation budget. Before the group's work will be completed, several major projects will continue on their own tracks.

The weakness of the current approach is demonstrated by the lack of coordination between the plans for I-295 and the Maine Turnpike.

The turnpike, with its Falmouth spur, provides an efficient bypass around the city of Portland while Interstate 295 cuts the city in half.

While the turnpike collects tolls, I-295 is free. That discourages turnpike use while channeling traffic right through the middle of Portland's downtown.

I-295 has become Maine's busiest highway, and transportation planners say it needs to be widened in order to maintain safety. If approved, this would be the most expensive Maine highway project on the books, dominating federal highway funds.

But plans to change the toll structure on the turnpike, which could have an immediate effect on I-295 in greater Portland, are being conducted in a separate process run by the independent Turnpike Authority.

The Portland Area Regional Transportation Committee will hold a public forum to whittle down its list of high-priority projects on Tuesday at the Clarion Hotel in Portland.

The resulting list will be forwarded to Washington for funding through special appropriations known as earmarks.


Several items on the list are parts of the I-295 widening. The list also includes significant alternative transportation projects, including a $100 million request to buy and improve tracks for commuter rail service and $15 million to purchase ferries, buses and commuter vans. Critics say the earmark funding turns what should be a comprehensive planning exercise into a political one.

The ability to get earmarks is more often a reflection of a member of Congress' clout rather than the relative worth of a project. And money earmarked for a project, can only be used for that project even if the needs of the community change.

In the past, decisions like this would be made by bureaucrats with little public input. But since the passage of the citizen-initiated Sensible Transportation Act in 1991, the Maine public has a chance to weigh in.

The act also requires that the state look at alternatives to road-building, and the DOT has done that, initiating a federally funded commuter rail study that is expected to take two years to complete.

When it's done, Maine would have a chance to compete for funding from a larger pool of federal money to get the project under way.

This represents a balanced approach to transportation planning that recognizes that cars and trucks will be the dominant mode of transportation long into the future.


But it also represents a choice. Investing in a wider, faster I-295 now will likely delay the demand for passenger rail.

As long as highway travel is more convenient than mass transit, it will remain the dominant mode, contributing to sprawl development, greenhouse-gas emissions and dependence on oil.

Since one choice would likely affect the other, it makes sense to complete the transit study and explore changing the toll structure on the turnpike before beginning to widen the highway.

A more comprehensive approach to transportation planning would better serve the greater Portland region.

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