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

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Years of traffic engineering, rejected

Despite the highway engineers' best efforts to make people leave early with their skull-numbing Powerpoint slides on "level of service" and "ramp geometry," roughly 100 people from all over the greater Portland region stuck it out and voiced their lack of confidence in Maine's highway-biased Department of Transportation at last night's public meeting on Interstate 295 widening proposals. Here's this morning's Press Herald story.

We even got deputy commissioner Greg Nadeau to back off of his assertion that a "tsunami" of traffic was coming at us whether we build highways or not (in fact, with rising gasoline prices in the years since the study began, traffic statewide has actually decreased). The citizens in the room were too smart to swallow that tripe, and they let him know it.

The challenge now will be for citizens to hold these bureaucrats accountable and to make sure they don't ignore or make empty gestures towards our concerns, which has been the Dept. of Transportation's traditional modus operandi.

We can do that both by demonstrating sustained opposition to the incomplete and biased I-295 study - making it clear that the people of Maine will neither accept nor pay for its recommended "strategies" - and by writing to the governor to make sure that he is aware of the public lack of confidence in his Department of Transportation (governor@maine.gov). Here are some talking points for Gov. Baldacci:

  • Your administration has admirably committed itself to the ideals of Maine’s “quality of place,” to reducing greenhouse gas pollution, and to spending limited financial resources in a prudent and sensible manner. However, your Department of Transportation’s "Interstate 295 Corridor Study" is a brutal contradiction of these sensible principles.

  • Widening and accommodating more traffic on I-295 will generate more congestion on local streets in service-center communities, where local property taxes will have to shoulder the burden to deal with additional traffic, parking, and pollution.

  • According to its own projections, MDOT's highway recommendations will increase greenhouse gas pollution by thousands of tons every year, which would force the entire state's industries and electric ratepayers to pay more in order to meet our greenhouse gas reduction goals.

  • Spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new pavement and roadwork on a few miles of highway in Portland makes no sense when the entire state's bridges and highways are crumbling for lack of funding.

  • This agency willfully ignores more cost-effective transit solutions at a time when buses and new rail services are both desired and necessary to deal with rising costs of congestion and gasoline.

  • The bureaucracy that produced the I-295 Corridor Study is out of touch and out of line: your administration needs to reject its recommendations and make swift changes to bring this agency into the 21st century.

The public can demonstrate its rejection of the I-295 plan's recommendations at the next meeting of the PACTS (Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation Study) high-priority projects committee. At this meeting, on February 12 at the former Doubletree (now Clarion) Hotel in Portland, PACTS will evaluate which projects it will send to Washington for earmark requests. Currently, this list includes a several of the ill-advised I-295 widening and interchange projects discussed last night, so this is the public's chance to starve the beast of funding and to buy something more worthwhile (like new transit services) instead. I'll post more details here as the event approaches.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Welcome, Press Herald readers and MPBN listeners

This blog and its Oaks Parkway proposal got some press this morning on MPBN and from the Press Herald. If this is your first time here, welcome! This blog is a citizens' effort to bring Maine's transportation networks into the twenty-first century and shine some critical light on the hidebound bureaucracies that continue to lay pavement across the state, whether or not we want (or can afford) it.

To learn more about my Oaks Parkway proposal for downtown Portland, follow the links below:





  • Lost Sites: I-295 Overview maps of I-295, and its potential value as a smaller, more humane parkway. Redeveloping the land that I-295 occupies could add as many as 800 units of housing and office space for 2,000 new jobs in Portland's inner neighborhoods.
  • Lost Sites: I-295 at Deering Avenue and Oaks Parkway at Deering Avenue A side by side comparison of the freeway's existing conditions and how a redeveloped, narrower parkway could look.
  • Tour of the new Oaks Parkway A video tour of the I-295 corridor through Portland, including a virtual ride on the proposed Oaks Parkway bus rapid transitway.


Members of the press or the general public who'd like to learn more: please contact Christian McNeil at christiannealmcneil at yahoo.com or call 310-0728 for more information, or for high-resolution images for print. Our you could download and view the proposal as an annotated Google Earth overlay. I'll also be presenting a slide show of this proposal at tonight's City Hall meeting on MDOT's I-295 corridor study (7 PM, State of Maine room).

And here, because I couldn't have said it better myself, is Press Herald editorial writer Greg Kesich's column from today's paper:
I-295 too crowded? Why not get rid of the highway?

We all know what to do with a highway like Interstate 295 when it gets too congested, don't we?

You add lanes and beef up the exit ramps so more vehicles can get on and off faster. Right?

But what if you got rid of the ramps and made the highway part of the street grid?

What if you added stoplights and crosswalks that slowed traffic down? What if instead of widening the road, you made it more narrow?

What you would end up with would not be a highway, but it might be a lot better for Portland, according to Christian McNeil, an urban planning student and transportation activist who has drafted such a plan as an alternative to more conventional highway improvements that are being considered by the Maine Department of Transportation.

McNeil plans to present his ideas outside a public meeting with DOT engineers tonight at 7 in the State of Maine Room in Portland City Hall.

The concept plan he calls "Oaks Parkway" can also be seen on McNeil's blog, "Rights of Way" (www.rightsofway.blogspot.com), which offers a lively attack on the conventional wisdom surrounding transportation issues.

I-295 is one of the DOT's top priorities because it is the most used stretch of road in the state. On average, 80,000 vehicles cross Tukey's Bridge every day, and the traffic is expected to get heavier.

But McNeil says there are other concerns.

Under his plan, Portland could recover 60 acres of developable land by building a pedestrian-friendly boulevard in place of the 2-mile stretch of I-295 with its elaborate clover-leaf exits between outer Congress Street and Franklin Arterial.

The raw land would be worth $60 million, development could double its value and contribute hefty property tax revenues to the city. It would create 2,000 jobs and room for 800 units of downtown housing.

But wouldn't it also create a massive traffic jam?

McNeil says it would slow things down, but it might not be as bad as you'd think.

Lowering speeds would increase the road's capacity. Remember the "2-second rule" from Driver's Ed? A car going 60 miles per hour needs a lot more space around it than one going 25.

This would still be too slow for through traffic, and those drivers would probably avoid the new route to take the Maine Turnpike, which some now pass up to avoid paying tolls.

Which gets to McNeil's basic question: Why would we want to route regional freeway traffic through downtown Portland anyway?

It's not like widening I-295 won't cause traffic problems. When more vehicles come to Portland off the enhanced I-295, they will still get off the highway by the same three exits. Expect the increased volume on the highway to result in traffic backups on Franklin Arterial, Forest Avenue and Congress Street.

Deputy Transportation Commissioner Greg Nadeau said a projected "tsunami" of future traffic makes a plan like McNeil's unworkable.

Alternative transportation is part of the solution but it can only take up so much slack. "If we didn't need 295, we'd save a lot of money," he said.

McNeil doesn't expect DOT to embrace his plan and trash its own. He's just hoping to start a conversation that will break people out of the old ways of looking at road-building.

Local activists have already been able to scrap a plan to turn the Franklin Arterial into a six-lane behemoth that would sever downtown from the East End.

Instead, planners are working on a new design that will move cars, but also make space for pedestrians and cyclists.

This may sound overly idealistic, but it's not. Trends are moving in McNeil's direction, and the DOT knows it.

In the department's I-295 draft plan, it notes that oil is getting scarce and demand is increasing in China and India.

When today's middle-schoolers are in the work force, don't you think they will need some way to get to their jobs without having to gas up?

Today's transportation choices will also impact Maine's aging population. There comes a time for most people when dimming eyesight and slower reflexes cause them to give up driving. Without a car, they can't visit friends, go to church or pick up a few things at the store.

While Maine's elderly might not be cruising on the bike lanes that are part of McNeil's 295 vision, they might like to be able to walk to a bus stop on what now is a highway.

A lot of things are going to change in the next few decades that will have profound effects on how we get around.

The transportation activists are right to question if we are preparing for that day in the right way.

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be reached at 791-6481, or at:

gkesich@pressherald.com

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Hidebound Departments of Transportation

This editorial from today's New York Times is ostensibly talking about Connecticut, but the subtext to Mainers should be obvious:

With the state’s highways inching ever closer to gridlock in recent years, a major project was undertaken to install a new drainage system and widen Interstate 84, which enters Connecticut from upstate New York and winds through Danbury, Waterbury and Hartford. It made traffic a nightmare, but commuters looked forward to clear roadways when it was done.

Well, not quite. It turns out that the state Department of Transportation, a notoriously hidebound agency, had arranged for contractors to both build and inspect the system. Surprise! When everything was finished, virtually every detail was constructed wrong... The state is suing, the F.B.I. is investigating, and Gov. M. Jodi Rell called for a top-to-bottom study last year of how the D.O.T. conducts business.

Preliminary results of the study are in, and they are not pretty. The department, decimated by early retirements several years ago, has a management model based on the Soviet Union’s. It takes as long as seven months to hire a low-level clerk. Any attempt to innovate, or even attend a meeting on innovation, requires the permission of so many higher-ups that few employees bother. Information on the agency Web page is years out of date. The department lets itself be pushed around by little towns that fight change and dole out commuter parking permits like country club memberships.

The good news? Ms. Rell is searching for someone to head the agency, and we encourage her to be bold so the transportation apparatchiks learn revolutionary thinking. Maybe Mikhail Gorbachev is available.

A hidebound DOT? I don't know what's more surprising, the fact that the Times considers this news, or the fact that they singled out Connecticut instead of Maine.

Speaking of which, you can read the latest repulsively stale widening proposal from Maine's DOT on the agency's I-295 corridor study website, which, like Connecticut's, contains "information" that is mostly two to three years old. But not without its arch humor: "Your opinion and feedback is [sic] important to us," they tell us. Rim shot!

But seriously, folks. We all have a chance to meet these jokers live and in person this Wednesday, 7 pm, at City Hall. If you'd like to spend $100 million (an amount equivalent to the state's entire budget shortfall this year) on a six-lane, New Jersey-scaled freeway running through the middle of Portland, here's your chance to congratulate MDOT on a job well done.

And if you think that this might not be the greatest idea, here's a rare chance to hold some Augusta bureaucrats accountable.

If you have a strong stomach, you can take a look at MDOT's recommendations for I-295 here. Just try not to think too much about how much time and money our "public servants" in Augusta wasted on this pile.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Lost Sites: Interstate 295 at Deering Avenue

Continuing the "lost sites" discussion, here's are two views of the freeway corridor from the Deering Avenue overpass. Here's how it looks now, looking east towards the 20-acre, pedestrian-deadly Forest Avenue interchange:



And as it could be, without the freeway:



Note the dedicated bus lanes, a bus rapid transit station under Deering Street, the crosswalks, and the new acreage added on to Deering Oaks Park. New housing, offices, and university buildings rise in the distance, where a cloverleaf onramp currently wastes valuable urban real estate. New development like the brick building in the foreground could also take advantage of land freed up by a narrower roadway.

Also note that this idea doesn't actually reduce the number of lanes for cars - it just narrows the pavement and re-appropriates space on the shoulders for dedicated bus and bike lanes. In fact, because cars require more space at freeway speeds, a 25 mile-per-hour boulevard like this one can actually hold more vehicles than the existing freeway. But in this scheme, evenly-spaced traffic lights and pedestrian crossings would also allow pedestrians and bicycles to use the road - and those are uses that the existing freeway can't accommodate.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Lost Sites: Interstate 295

Last year, an "Architalx" series focused on Portland's "lost sites", those in-between and forgotten places that interrupt the urban fabric with a bit of desolate emptiness. One of the subjects - Franklin Arterial - attracted so much public attention that city leaders are now undertaking a complete redesign of that street.

But as interesting as "Lost Sites" was, it overlooked the elephant on the Peninsula, the congested freeway that cuts off downtown Portland from the University of Southern Maine, our train station, and the nearest Hannaford supermarket: Interstate 295.

But what if Portlanders had a say in how this massive, 60-acre moat were designed? Are cloverleaf ramps really the best use of such valuable real estate? Might we ask for sidewalks where we could be confident that we wouldn't be mugged or make the intimate acquaintance of some suburbanite's windshield?

Below are two satellite images of the existing Interstate 295 corridor in downtown Portland. Roll your mouse over them to see this citizen's vision of what these areas could become.

At Congress Street and Libbytown:



Forest Avenue cloverleaf and Bayside:



Click the above images for larger views.

The central premise of this idea is based on the fact that motorists traveling from the south towards Brunswick or Lewiston/Auburn should not be encouraged to drive through downtown Portland. By disconnecting the freeway, motorists will still be able to take freeways to the edge of downtown, where they'll then have better access to local streets, but through traffic will have to take the Turnpike, located further west.

By removing regional freeway traffic from downtown, this proposal would enhance vehicular access for downtown-bound drivers. The existing layout of I-295 dumps out huge volumes of freeway traffic onto just three streets: Congress, Forest, and Franklin. Re-establishing the street grid will give motorists more options and distribute traffic over a larger geographic area for less congestion on any one street.

This proposal includes a dedicated transitway (the yellow lines in the maps above) that would preserve the north-south connection through downtown for local and intercity bus services.


Most excitingly, though, the empty land that the existing freeway uses up could be re-used and re-developed as new, transit-oriented and walkable neighborhoods. If we replaced the on ramps and highway lanes between Congress Street and Franklin Arterial with new buildings 2-3 stories tall, we could add over 2,000 jobs, and over 800 units of housing downtown.

We could also create valuable new parklands, including a restoration of the historic marshes that once connected the pond in Deering Oaks to Back Cove, and a continuous bike and pedestrian connection between the Eastern Prom, Deering Oaks, and Dougherty Field.

This whole idea came out of a landscape architecture portfolio I put together for my application to the Harvard Graduate School of Design last week. But it isn't just an academic exercise: I want this to get people talking about 295 the same way the Architalx presentations got people talking about Franklin Arterial. So far, planning for this highway and these valuable 60 acres of urban real estate has been confined to the Maine Dept. of Transportation headquarters in Augusta, where sadist traffic engineers dream up new and elaborate ways to injure Maine's pedestrians.

But what do actual Portlanders want to make of this corridor? Ideas and feedback in the comments, please.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A sinking Detroit lifts all cities

Gee whiz, it's the Detroit auto show this week! So what's the industry planning for our future? Here's some good news from Nissan executive Tom Lane, an American who runs Product Strategy and Product Planning from his office in Tokyo (source: Fortune magazine):

[Lane] notes that consumers in Japan are losing their mojo when it comes to cars. The population is aging, and younger drivers would rather spend their money on new cellphones and Internet access.

"Japan is increasingly not interested in new cars," he says.

The population in Europe is aging too, and Lane sees similar ennui spreading there. As car ownership becomes more expensive and cities increasingly impose congestion pricing on car usage in center cities, he sees car owners switching to mass transit for their daily commute, and then renting cars for longer trips.

"The U.S. is headed that way," he says. "The challenge for us, going forward, is a more interesting offer. Doing a better Sentra or an Altima isn't going to do it."

So if even auto industry executives are anticipating a future in which people drive less, why are MDOT and the Turnpork Authority planning to spend a quarter billion dollars on freeway expansions in greater Portland?

Christ, even buying stock in General Motors would be a better investment of public money.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Turnpike Authority needs to put up or shut down.

The Downeaster, the popular and growing train route between Portland and Boston, may be forced to shut down in 2009 thanks to the spendthrift incompetence of the Maine Turnpike Authority.

As you probably know, Maine's transportation infrastructure is in the middle of a funding crisis. Gas tax revenues can't afford to maintain the existing network of roads and bridges. Gas is over $3 a gallon and independent truckers are in revolt. What little transit options we have are being paid for through the straining general fund (which faces a $100 million shortfall this year) and through municipal property taxes (which are already too high for most towns to bear).

And yet, in the midst of all these hardships, the Turnpike Authority is spending our money like it's going out of style: they're blasting away a rocky hilltop in Portland to build an expensive new headquarters office building (with acres of socialized parking), they're building palatial new food-court rest stops throughout the state, and they're planning to raise tolls to spend over $150 million (that's half again as much as the entire state's budget shortfall) to widen just 9 miles of the road west of Portland.

The money required for that last project - adding one lane in each direction between Scarborough and Falmouth - could pay for about two decades of Downeaster service.

Incidentally, a lot of people think that the Turnpike Authority's filthy lucre should pay for rail transit. After all, the train follows the same Portland-to-Boston path as the Turnpike, and on peak summer weekends, when tourists are sweltering in their cars behind toll-plaza traffic jams, the train does the Turnpike an invaluable service by taking traffic off the road and giving travelers a separate, faster option.

The train also pollutes less (the Turnpike produces more air pollution than all of Maine's power plants combined), its tracks costs less to maintain, and its rails could carry as many people as sixteen lanes of pavement. By any measure, if the Turnpike Authority is actually interested in moving people and freight, the railroad would provide the best bang for their buck.

Unfortunately, the Turnpike Authority refuses to share their toll revenue with anyone outside the sand and gravel industries. The legislature has been meeting over the past year to try to determine how to pay for the Downeaster's current budget shortfall. But in these meetings, Turnpike goons have threatened any lawmakers who have dared consider using their toll revenues to pay for anything other than pavement.

But more and more people are coming to the conclusion that the Turnpike isn't as interested in moving people and freight as it is in preserving its high-pay, low-work bureaucracy and in securing lucrative construction contracts for its cronies. As roads, bridges, and transit in other parts of the state continue to deteriorate, it's going to be awfully hard for Legislators to continue to entrust such a large portion of public funds as the Turnpike's toll revenues to the backwards bureaucracy that runs the Authority.

But perhaps those bureaucrats are just misunderstood. Maybe they're getting ready to ask the Legislature to allocate a healthy percentage of Turnpike revenue to pay for the Downeaster and other regional transit services in the Turnpike's corridor. That certainly would prove what good public servants they really are. How about it, guys - give us some hard evidence.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

All it takes.

From the NY Times, January 6:

FOR eight years, Brenda J. Murtha, a pension consultant with Aetna, drove 50 miles round-trip from her home in Colchester, Conn., to her job in downtown Hartford. But when Aetna recently announced that employees would be charged to park, she decided to try CT Transit’s Marlborough-Colchester Express bus.

Two months later, Ms. Murtha is still enjoying the ride. She says she saves about $300 a month in gas by leaving her Ford Explorer in Colchester, and with Aetna’s monthly mass-transit incentive jumping to $50 this month, she will be spending just $15 a month to commute.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that this makes sense,” said Ms. Murtha, 47. “I’m all for saving money — it’s better in my pocket than in the pocket of some oil company.”
It doesn't take a rocket scientist. But it does require the end of parking socialism.

Bring Renys to Portland

Now that both the Whole Grocer and Wild Oats lie fallow in the strip malls of Marginal Way, the Bayside neighborhood has two large retail spaces that are both within walking distance of most of downtown Portland's neighborhoods and without tenants.

Wouldn't either of these places be a good place for a good, Maine-based, general merchandise retailer like Renys? Renys is a chain store, which means that precious Old Port shoppeowners might turn up their noses at the idea, but I, for one, would love to have a place downtown where I could buy a toaster, or diversify my wardrobe beyond last year's rejects from L.L. Bean.

Renys also believes in locating their stores in or near downtowns (their Main Street Gardiner store is pictured), and they're expanding, with a newly-opened store in Saco. Either of the former grocery store spaces would also give them the chance to attract foot traffic from the planned Bayside trail. If you're a peninsula resident or a downtown worker who would like to give Renys some of your business, let them know: feedback@renys.com

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Where the News comes from

We have two newspapers in Portland. You probably know about the Press Herald, the big daily with a staff of hundreds. But the Press Herald's local coverage is rivaled by a much smaller weekly, the Forecaster. In spite of its small staff, the Forecaster frequently writes about interesting news stories - like the one about Second Wind Farm on Chebeague Island - several weeks before the Press Herald prints their own features on the same topics.

So what do these two newspapers have to do with streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine? Well, for one thing, the Forecaster has meticulous coverage of local development stories - including an article last week on our success in funding a new streetscape plan for Franklin Arterial.

But the differences in these two newspapers are also indicative of their cultural and physical geographies. Last night, I learned from a friend of mine who used to write for the Forecaster that their offices are located in the suburban slum strip along Route One in Falmouth - a neighborhood almost indistinguishable from those found along the frontage roads of Houston's freeways. The Press Herald's offices, on the other hand, are located smack in the middle of downtown Portland, across the street from City Hall.

So how can a newspaper whose offices are so isolated compete in local news coverage with a newspaper whose offices are in the middle of everything? I think that it's because where you live, and who you know, is more important than where you work. Many of the Forecaster's writers are young journalists at the beginning of their career, and many of them live in or near downtown Portland. Even if they spend their 9 to 5 days in no-man's land, they spend their evenings and weekends hanging out here. So they hear gripes about neighborhood issues or gossip about a new restaurant long before it's in any newspaper. Once an idea for a new story germinates, it matters less if the desk where it gets written, edited, and fact-checked has a view of the ass-end of Wal-Mart.

The Press Herald, on the other hand, generally has an older, more suburban staff (with some exceptions). Unless there's a formal public meeting, they leave Portland at 5 pm most evenings and generally don't hang out with any of the entrepreneurs or neighborhood activists that I know of. Stories that spring from chance encounters seem relatively rare.

I suspect that the Forecaster, with a much smaller staff and 1/7th of the editions, can compete with the Press Herald because their writers spend more time in Portland's public spaces and are more integrated with Portland's social capital. Chance encounters on the sidewalk, in the coffee shop, or at weekend house parties are more important than a downtown office. Although it's telling that a third newspaper - MaineBiz, a monthly - has both a young, urban staff and a downtown office, and blows all of Maine's newspapers out of the water for statewide business coverage.

This implication isn't just true for journalists, either. All sorts of information-age businesses thrive from the informal networking that walkable cities with a healthy public realm can provide, from design consultancies to investment banks.

Here's my prescription for better Portland journalism: the Press Herald could improve itself quickly by hiring a young journalist or two with civic ties to downtown Portland to cover city and neighborhood news stories. The Forecaster should distribute its offices to smaller spaces located closer to the downtown communities they cover. The Forecaster should also update its 1995-vintage website - a Wordpress database is a free and easy-to-use framework that would also make the Forecaster Maine's first newspaper to syndicate its stories via RSS. Come on, Forecaster editors: I dare you.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Both Futures Were Possible

Years ago, elected officials and transportation bureaucrats drafted a plan. They titled it, perhaps not very imaginatively, A Time of Change: Portland Transportation Plan. But don't let the boring title fool you. This was one visionary transportation plan, certainly more visionary than the auto-centric Peninsula Traffic Study that came out several years later.

One thing that caught my attention in this plan was that the authors imagined two different futures for the city of Portland and its region. One was a transit-oriented utopia, the other a gridlocked and sprawling autotopia.

In the utopia, it is 15 years in the future and the fictional protagonists Mark and Barbara wake up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in a world where their kids can either bike or walk to school, the adults have multiple commuting options, including commuter rail to Portsmouth, and local neighborhoods are packed to the gills with convenient amenities. Life is so good, they plan to take the kids out for ice cream after dinner, then sit on the front porch and catch up on neighborhood gossip until the sun goes down.

Meanwhile, the autotopia is also 15 years in the future and Mark and Barbara are still waking up. Only this time the both of them are groggy and cranky because the traffic on their street wouldn't let them get any sleep. Letting the kids make their way to school by themselves is out of the question in such conditions, so the adults negotiate who will drop them off and who will pick them up and take them to their respective after-school appointments, which are of course on opposite ends of town. The traffic may be a nightmare but at least parking at the mall is free. Mark and Barbara can't even crack open a window lest they be sickened by clouds of exhaust. The situation is so untenable that our protagonists are considering buying a house on a quite three acre lot way the hell out in Parsonsfield. It may be farther from the Maine Mall as the crow flies, but time-wise it's all a wash as far as the traffic is concerned.

The study concludes both scenarios with these words:

Both futures are possible. The first will come about only with some shifts in public policy and lifestyles. The second is a simple extrapolation of present policies and lifestyles. The choice is ours.
By the way, I neglected to mention when these cute attempts at speculative fiction by local politicians and bureaucrats first made its debut.

1993.

Fifteen years in 1993's future would be ... 2008. So where the hell is that commuter rail line to Portsmouth and other locales in the region? Oh yeah, I forgot - the transit oriented utopia never came to pass. We live in the autotopia. The choice was indeed ours and the status quo prevailed. Somehow, we failed to ignore our way out of a mess that was already blindingly obvious to the pre-Information Superhighway-era cavemen 1993. What was it the cavemen knew then that the neanderthals at the PACTS and MDOT apparently haven't a clue about today?

The cavemen of 1993 knew from experience that the already decades-old trend of more and more single occupancy vehicles crowding other modes of transit off of over-capacity traffic arteries was unsustainable. They were worried about global warming. They still remembered the energy crises of the 1970's. They deplored sprawl and suburbanized public buildings. They were well aware of the pitfalls of prioritizing the swift movement and easy storage of cars at the expense of walkers, bikers, and transit riders. They knew zoning laws that preclude density were well past their prime.

So instead of doing something daft like widening the Franklin Arterial to nine lanes or building yet another parking garage, the cavemen realized there had to be another way. The goals of these wise cro-magnons included such seemingly modern "fads" as sustainability and energy efficiency, inter-modal transit and plenty of transit choices, zoning reform, performance targets (such as returning to transport use ratios last seen in 1970), and high standards of design. They called for financial incentives that would push toward these goals, more comprehensive planning, compact and diverse development that would reduce the need for cars, regional transportation centers, local transit districts and centers with convenient amenities close at hand, aggressive funding for bike lanes and mass transit, commuter rail, comprehensive transportation planning, and real regional planning. These prehistoric ancestors of ours further declared that these changes needed to happen at neighborhood, city, and regional levels. What a glorious future it could have been.

Alas, the cavemen were ignored by the neanderthals who have staffed transportation bureaucracies since time immemorial. The neanderthals took one look at A Time of Change, grunted, and went on to draft the business-as-usual peninsula traffic study a decade later. Thankfully, just like the real neanderthals of the real stone age, they and their way of life is doomed to extinction. The same problems that prompted cavemen like Alan Caron and cavewomen like Anne Pringle to realize the need for real change still face us today, and they are more acute than ever. Yes, the looming budget crisis in Maine means funding for expanded mass transit is in dire straights, but highway projects are in the same boat. Time to throw that sand and gravel mentality overboard.

We also have fresh transit-friendly blood on the Portland City Council - including Kevin Donoghue, slayer of the Dread Peninsula Traffic Study. In it's place will rise a new transit study that will be more in line with the Spirit of '93. The members of that new transit study committee (including Christian McNeil of this very blog) will surely be kept busy these next few months, but they can be thankful that A Time of Change is one hell of a blueprint.

Perestroika for MDOT & the Turnpike Authority

Congratulations to Christian on penning an editorial in today's Press Herald. Surely its theme of late Brezhnevian-style rot in our state's transportation bureaucracies is a familiar one for the readers of this blog, but it's nice to see the message dispersed to a slightly wider audience. Blurb here:

But in MDOT's view, the only problem with I-295 is that it needs more traffic. Their engineers admit that the expensive new lanes will quickly fill up with more cars and dump out more congestion, accidents and air pollution onto local streets in Portland, Falmouth and Freeport -- but they've been widening roads for 80 years, and are incapable of implementing more innovative or effective solutions. The failures of MDOT and the turnpike authority affect all of Maine.

Link to the rest of the editorial can be found here.