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

Friday, May 30, 2008

Find this bike.

Last night, someone stole Katie Diamond's bike in front of her office at 1 Pleasant Street. She writes:

"This is not just a bike. This is a bike I built myself, from pieces I accumulated over time. She took four months to find all the pieces and complete. She was specially tailored to suit the way I ride, and my height, and weight. She was quirky and special and I am devastated she is gone."
I think, with a few dozen Portlanders keeping an eye out for it, there's a pretty good chance we can find it. Please forward this message to all your cyclist friends, and if you see this red road bike, call Katie's cellphone - 954-600-0900 - and consider confronting the rider or calling police.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Wi-Fi on the Downeaster

This item on the Downeaster Riders' Blog reports that our Portland-to-Boston passenger train service now (as of June 1st) includes wireless internet access in all cars:

"Finally, Wi-Fi should be up and running in all cars by June 1st. Each Sprint unit, attached to a window in each car, can handle 16 users simultaneously which means 80 riders can be on the Internet as they merrily ride the rails to Boston and return home. NNEPRA is providing this server FREE to Downeaster riders…"
The train takes 30 minutes longer than driving (or taking the bus) from Portland to Boston, which has been a factor in some peoples' decision to drive or take Concord Trailways instead.

But wi-fi service makes that difference irrelevant, by transforming travel time into productive working time - especially for workers in the new economy. It also offers up unlimited entertainment options (I appreciate the movies on Concord Trailways, but I'd much rather watch some of the internet's free television shows or listen to Pandora than watch a mediocre movie chosen by my bus driver).

The same Downeaster Riders blog entry reveals that April's train ridership was up 48.3% over last April, and for the fiscal year to date, ridership is up over 25% compared to the same period last year. Some of the gains seem to be coming from the Maine Turnpike, where weekend holiday traffic was down 4% since last year.

With this new wireless service, and the working and entertainment options it brings with it, I expect that ridership will begin to accelerate even more quickly.

For those of you who continue driving - you might be losing four hours of your life, but at least you've got the radio.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Quote of the Day

Barack Obama:

"It's time that the entire country learn from what's happening right here in Portland with mass transit and bicycle lanes and funding alternative means of transportation. That's the kind of solution that we need for America."

He's talking about the other Portland, of course. The city where there were over 8,000 bikes locked to every railing and fence within a mile's radius of Obama's rally in Waterfront Park.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Let's think again.

The Turnpork Authority isn't just upsetting its customers with its persistent refusal and failure to pay for more affordable transportation choices, like commuter buses and the Downeaster. It's also stirred up a bees nest of controversy with its proposal to pave about twelve acres of rural York countryside in order to build a new toll plaza. Here's the website for the grassroots opposition group, which calls itself "Think Again."

Here's my question, though: do we need a York toll plaza at all?

Why can't we consolidate the Maine Turnpike's toll booth in Wells with the New Hampshire toll booth in Hampton, with a joint operating and revenue-sharing agreement? Instead of having motorists stop twice to pay $1.50 in NH, then another $1.75 fifteen miles away in York, have them stop only once to pay a single $3.25 toll in Hampton, and have the two agencies split the revenue as though they'd each collected it separately.

Get rid of the summer weekend traffic jams in York County altogether. Pay for half as many toll-collectors and half the maintenance costs of a toll plaza. Satisfy the neighbors in York County AND satisfy your customers with fewer toll stops AND save money on reduced operations costs.

As far as I can tell the only reasons that the Turnpork Authority wouldn't like this idea are

  • a) because it came from a blogger who refers to their ridiculously out-of-touch bureaucracy as the "Turnpork Authority," and

  • b) because upgrading the Hampton tolls instead of building a new plaza in York would prevent the Authority from slinging their pork around to their buddies in Maine's highway contracting businesses.
But these reasons seem even more petty when you compare them with the alternatives, which involve eminent domain, a lot of ill will, and higher transportation costs for many of Maine's visitors, commuters, and freight shippers.

How about it?

Monday, May 19, 2008

What are our priorities, again?

Back in October of 2007, when I first wrote about the PACTS "high-priority projects," gasoline was $2.80 a gallon and with generally little interest in possible earmarks for the 2009 federal transportation bill, regional traffic engineers and planners felt comfortable recommending six road and freeway expansion projects among the top eight highest priorities for our region. The list only included one proposal to expand transit service - and that idea (expanding passenger rail service north to Brunswick) ranked at the bottom of the list.

Since then, the price of gas has increased 35%. Gas tax revenues have plummeted because people are driving less. Maine's roads are riddled with potholes after a harsh winter and the state can't afford to fix them. And a newly-energized grassroots effort turned out hundreds of people in opposition to stupid ideas like the Gorham Bypass and widening I-295, and in favor of a 21st-century transit infrastructure for the entire state.

In response to these seismic and lasting changes, the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation Study committee has taken the extremely bold step of... not doing anything. Their list of priorities is still top heavy with the same highway projects, and new passenger service is still at the bottom. Other good transit ideas, like retrofitting the bus fleet with wireless beacons so riders can predict arrival and departure times and traffic signals can hold a green light for late buses, or expanding vanpool services to communities like Buxton, Sanford, and the Berwicks, are still way off their radar.

So evidently PACTS still believes that the biggest crises facing transportation in greater Portland are a few minutes of rush-hour congestion on I-295 downtown and on Main Street in Gorham. Well, if anyone out there disagrees, they've scheduled three more public forums in suburban communities in the next couple of weeks. First up is a 7 PM forum in Saco City Hall this Thursday, then a meeting in Yarmouth the next Thursday, followed by a forum in Westbrook on Thursday June 5th (details here).


Saturday, May 17, 2008

GoMaine initiates new vanpools

As reported in this week's Forecaster, GoMaine has initiated a new vanpool service between Portland and Lewiston. The van's 10 riders subscribe to the service for $90 a month, which is less than the cost of three round trips in a private auto, if you add up the costs of gas, registration, insurance, wear and tear, and tolls. The Portland-to-Lewiston service is already booked, but according to the GoMaine website, "new vanpools will be formed based upon demonstrated commuter demand."

GoMaine also operates 16 other vanpools, but the Lewiston service is the first one that doesn't start or end in Augusta. Some of the other vanpools do still have open seats - check out gomaine.org/vanpool to check the routes and availability. And if you'd like GoMaine to start a vanpool somewhere else, send them an e-mail with your request.

Since subscribers pay for the vans' fuel and gasoline, the major limiting factor for new vanpools seems to be the capital cost of buying new vans: each one costs about $25,000, which is about how much the Turnpork Authority plans to spend every eight feet in their proposed widening project. That proposal would widen 9 miles of the turnpike in Portland for $150 million, a sum which could buy enough 10-passenger vans to seat every man, woman, and child in the city.

Right now, unfortunately, our state's transportation policy puts a higher priority on spending $25,000 on an 8-by-12 foot patch of asphalt than it does on providing an affordable and environmentally-friendly commuting option to Mainers. If you're wondering why, I suggest that you ask this guy.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Easternmost Zipcar in the USA

I was up in Penobscot County last week and snapped this photo of the University of Maine's shared car at the Orono campus:

The Zipcar is parked in a convenient spot at the close-in end of UMO's gigantic parking lot, which can be seen in the background here. You might also notice the big dent in the side. I'd chalked this up to lousy student driving, but my friend Margaret, a current UMO grad student, informed me that it was actually the result of a white-tailed deer running into the side of the car. So deer are stupider than college motorists. I stand corrected.

Speaking of shared cars, Matti Guerney, an employee of the Greater Portland Council of Governments, will be hosting two meetings in Portland at the end of this month to advance the idea of creating a carsharing business here in Maine's largest city. Here are the dates:

  • 5/29, 6 PM: Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization (aka "Hill House"), 92 Congress St.
  • 5/31, 10 AM: Reiche School, 166 Brackett St.

Contact Matti at carshareme@gmail.com to learn more.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Commute Another Way Week

...is this week!

Festivities include free rides on the state's meager city bus lines tomorrow (Tuesday). Register on the official web site to be eligible for fabulous prizes.

Maybe we should declare this "Commute the Way You'd Better Get Used to Commuting" Week. Who would have guessed that gas would be zooming right up towards $4 a gallon just as we're approaching the beginning of the high-demand summer season? And now Goldman Sachs is talking about crude oil prices going up to $200 a barrel if a major supply disruption hits (think Gulf Coast hurricane). That would translate into $7 a gallon for regular gasoline!


And lest you think that Goldman Sachs is just rattling speculative sabers, let's take a ride in the WayBack Machine to March 2005:

NEW YORK (MarketWatch, March 31, 2005) - Oil prices have entered the early stages of a multi-year period of trading in which economic growth and rising demand could push oil to $105 per barrel, enough to meaningfully reduce energy consumption, Goldman Sachs analysts said Thursday.

"We believe oil markets may have entered the early stages of what we have referred to as a "super spike" period -- a multi-year trading band of oil prices high enough to meaningfully reduce energy consumption and recreate a spare capacity cushion only after which will lower energy prices return," said analyst Arjun Murti.
This forecast earned GS some ridicule three years ago, but who's laughing now? Goldman Sachs was right on only one count, though. The second - meaningfully reducing energy consumption and recreating a spare capacity cushion - we're still waiting on.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Train riders have more fun

Above: the commute to Coachella, courtesy of the LA Times.

Global Inheritance, a group focused on creative youth activism, chartered an Amtrak train last week to transport about 300 music fans from LA's Union Station to a newly-built train platform in Indio, California: the site of last week's Coachella Valley Music Festival.

The LA Times reports:

"As train rides go, it was definitely a trip. Fashionably scruffy L.A. music fans, many scanning their text messages more than the view out their windows, chugged Coronas, ate free ice cream and bobbed to the thumping beats of four disc jockeys set up in corners of the six-car express train. It was a decidedly 21st century remix of the classic concert road trip..."
Sounds like fun to me. I'm reminded that as recently as the 1990s, Maine used to have a "ski train" with a similarly festive atmosphere - it picked up passengers and their skis in Portland and Lewiston and dropped them off in downtown Bethel, where shuttle buses took them to the slopes and back. That service was mainly supported by the Sunday River ski resort, though, and it died off when the squares at MDOT refused to lend their support. Maybe, with gas edging towards $4 a gallon, it's time for a revival...

Hat tip to the Gristmill blog for this one.

Monday, May 5, 2008

How to pay for efficient transportation infrastructure in Maine

After the final passage and signing of a railroad investment funding bill in Augusta, the Downeaster will in all likelihood be running north from Portland to Freeport and Brunswick by July 2010.

Unfortunately, LD 2019 will only cover the cost of the train's capital expansion northward. Before the rails are ready, the highly successful Downeaster train service (which just experienced a 25% jump in ridership compared to last March) will run out of a key source of federal funding, and face an $8 million shortfall in 2009.

How to pay that $8 million in order to keep the trains running will be a critical task of the next legislature. But how is Augusta going to find that money in the midst of a recession, with shortfalls in nearly every area of government?

Naturally, lawmakers are looking to one quasi-governmental agency that's almost as bloated with excess cash as it is with outmoded bureaucrats who can't wrap their minds around the new realities and opportunities of 21st century transportation.

The TurnporkTurnpike Authority has been discussing plans to spend $150 million on just 9 miles of freeway west of Portland. With that kind of money, the Downeaster could keep on running, with expanded service, for decades - and it would probably be enough to let the train become financially self-sufficient, to boot.

Thanks to recent public outrage over expensive gas and the MDOT's plans to expand I-295 and increasing gas prices, lawmakers have a keen sense of what Maine's real transportation priorities are - and an expanded freeway isn't among them. Although there is a constitutional restriction on using gas taxes and tolls only on highways (and not on railroads), some lawmakers have been discussing using toll revenues on increased bus transit (a highway use) in and between communities along the Turnpike. That would free up millions in unrestricted state and local funds to pay for rail service along the Turnpike corridor, and potentially throughout the rest of Maine as well.

The Turnpike's right-wing highway partisans have long dismissed the Downeaster as an insignificant drop in the bucket compared to the volume of traffic that their pavement moves. But when's the last time the Turnpike experienced 25% annual growth in patronage? Is the train insignificant for the thousands of Mainers saving cumulative millions of dollars in transportation costs? Have they noticed how lousy, low-wage big box farms (Augusta Market-"Place", above left) sprout up like weeds around Turnpike interchanges, while quality, mixed-use, downtown infill projects (Brunswick Maine Street Station, below right) get built around train stations?

Most importantly, is anyone really so foolish to think that a six-lane freeway is more important, in an age of $4/gallon gasoline, than investing in transit alternatives? Well yes, a few people are - and your toll revenues are paying their salaries.