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

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Economic stimulus for the 21st century

Via news.com.au:
CHINA will invest nearly $A445 billion [280 billion US dollars] in its overburdened rail system as a stimulus measure aimed at blunting the impact of the global financial crisis.

The Beijing News quoted a rail official as saying that, while the network needed extending, the massive investment was also intended to help lift the nation's economy as it suffers amid the global woes.

"New rail investment will become a shining light in efforts to push forward economic growth," railway ministry spokesman Wang Yongping said.

China's economy recorded its slowest growth in five years at 9.0 per cent in the third quarter of 2008.

The [China Daily] quoted a government policy adviser saying the plan was similar to China's successful strategy for warding off the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s.

"In 1997, we dealt with the Asian financial crisis by stimulating domestic economic growth through investment in the construction of highways," Zheng Xinli said.

"This time the money will go to improving the rail network."
Only in China would a 9% quarterly growth rate raise concerns about recession. Anyhow, it looks increasingly likely that the US will pass its own economic stimulus, with a focus on infrastructure investments, sometime in the next couple of weeks. The multi-billion dollar question is whether we'll piss it away on highways (which work about as well as subprime mortgages), or put it to productive use in building useful transit and railroad networks.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Portland just got better: new zoning legalizes more affordable housing, fewer cars

Good news - at Monday's meeting, Portland city councilors unanimously agreed to loosen zoning requirements for housing on the Portland peninsula.

The biggest and most significant changes were to the city's residential parking requirements. Previously, the city had required new housing to include two new off-street parking spaces per dwelling unit. Since the average parking space takes up about as much space as a studio apartment, Portland's parking policy effectively tripled the land and construction costs of every apartment built.

These requirements were ill-conceived leftovers from 1960s-era, pro-automobile activist planners. They functioned as a sort of social engineering that was in vogue forty years ago: an attempt to force city-dwellers to buy more cars by devoting excessive amounts of urban real estate to motor vehicle storage.

Because the rules were so restrictive, there hasn't been a single multi-family residential housing project built on the Portland peninsula in the past 10 years that hasn't also been forced to get special "contract zone" approval from the City. The rules effectively made it illegal for the free market to build new housing that was affordable to the middle class. City Hall wasted hundreds of hours of staff time on a handful of projects that made the effort to go through the laborious contract zoning process. While other cities enjoyed the first big boom in inner-city housing construction in decades, we mostly missed it.

As of Monday, though, the City will only require one parking space per dwelling unit on the peninsula. Developers will also be given more flexibility in avoiding parking requirements: for instance, including one space for a carsharing vehicle could replace 8 required parking spaces in a development, and the planning board can also grant leniency in parking requirements for elderly housing, or for housing that's accessible to transit.

Our city councilors, who passed these changes unanimously, deserve a lot of credit - once the housing market begins to recover, these changes are going to make a huge difference in making our streets safer and our neighborhoods more vibrant.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Bollard Resurgit

Thebollard.com has been a pretty forlorn corner of the internet for the past year, as its owners have made a foray into the lucrative dead-tree journalism trade.

But hey, great news: a new thebollard.com went live today, and it even includes some Web 2.0 features, like article tags and RSS feeds!

Huzzah, Bollard - you're five years late to the party, but you're way ahead of the rest of Maine's newspapers (and almost caught up with Maine Public Broadcasting - all you need is a podcast to tie).

Anncouncing the Greater Portland Active Transportation Campaign

Sometime next year, a new Congress and a new President will have to get to work on a new federal transportation bill - one that reflects the incredible new realities of $4/gallon gasoline, collapsing suburban home values, the need for rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and a workforce that's less and less interested in wasting hours of every day behind a steering wheel.

By necessity, then, the next federal transportation bill will be a radical departure from the old highway-building pork bills of yore. Cost-unconscious highway engineers are in for a harsh lesson in basic economics: we can't afford what they're building anymore. At the same time, low-cost, high-benefit transportation projects that have languished for years simply because they weren't highways will finally have their chance to succeed.

In 2005, Congress funded a small "Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program" that awarded $25 million to four communities (Marin, CA, Minneapolis, Sheboygan, WI, and Columbia, MO) so that they could invest in bicycling and walking infrastructure and stimulate a significant increase in the proportion of nonmotorized travel in these communities. Building on the success of this program, the national Rails to Trails Conservancy is now working to make sure that the program will be expanded to include dozens more communities in 2010.

Portland, Maine is one of the communities that's been encouraged to join the program, and Portland Trails today has released its plan for the "Active Transportation Campaign."

The plan reflects the collaborative work of dozens of organizations, inside and outside of government, and hundreds of citizens of greater Portland. With an expected $50 million in active transportation funds, Portland Trails anticipates that it can connect disjointed trails, make streets safer, and double the number of people who walk or bike to work or school. As ancillary benefits, these investments would eliminate the need to widen I-295 through Portland (a project that would have cost twice as much money), revitalize neighborhoods like Bayside and the Maine Mall area, and reduce stormwater pollution from pavement runoff.

Here's a map of proposed infrastructure projects:



The plan places a high priority on encouraging better pedestrian access to transit, and revitalizing streetscapes in places like Forest Avenue and Congress Street near the Westgate strip mall. "Active transport centers" scattered throughout city neighborhoods will give pedestrians and cyclists a comfortable, sheltered place to wait for buses or park their bikes. New bike/ped bridges will provide vital links, like the one over Long Creek that will connect the Mall area and Redbank neighborhood with downtown Portland via a newly-accessible Veterans Bridge.

Note that, at $50 million, all of these projects will still be far less expensive than adding a single lane to either of Portland's freeways. Visit the Portland Trails website to read the entire plan.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Boulder's Bus Success

Here's a new Streetsfilm about the city of Boulder, CO's extremely successful and popular bus system. Keep in mind, as you watch this, that Boulder's population of 100,000 people is less than the combined populations of Portland, South Portland, and Westbrook, which occupy roughly the same amount of land as the city of Boulder:



Also note former Mayor Will Toor's quote: "In 1990, the bus was essentially a social service for people who had no other choice about how they got around." Boulder, 20 years ago, was a lot like Portland, Maine today. Luckily, a number of recommendations of the Portland Peninsula Transit Study borrow strategies from Boulder: free bus passes for downtown workers, for example, and better bus service funded by downtown parking meters.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Planning Assn. Calls Commercial Street "Great"

The American Planning Association has honored Portland's Commercial Street as one of its 2008 "Great Places in America" honorees. Commercial Street qualifies as a "great street" because

"[it] blurs the distinctions among working waterfront, downtown main street, and historic tourist district... It's a dynamic yet precariously balanced amalgam crafted through years of debate and compromise."
Word choices like "precariously" and, later in the same article, "controversy," "complex," and "balancing act" make it clear that the Planners are aware of and frown upon Bob Baldacci's unholy lust for luxury hotels.

Commercial Street is great because of its embrace of the working waterfront's marine industries. It's pointedly not a strip of coyingly quaint shops and boutique hotels (ahem, Fore, Exchange Streets). For Commercial Street to remain great and get even better, it needs to replace some of the parking lots that disfigure it with new workplaces and housing that maintain Portland's dignity as a city in its own right, not as a summer colony where poor Mainers serve wealthy tourists from away.

Thanks to Elliot at Original Portland for pointing this out.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

BIG NEWS: Regional planning committee says 'no' to I-295 widening, 'YES' to transit!

Since there weren't any other people at this afternoon's meeting with journalist or blogger credentials, I think I can claim this as a scoop:

A special committee at PACTS, the regional transportation planning group that doles out federal transportation money for greater Portland, just voted to strike the proposed widening of I-295 through downtown Portland from its proposed list of "high priority projects."

Instead, the "High Priority Projects Committee" voted unanimously to endorse a $70 million earmark for commuter rail or bus rapid transit north of Portland, over $20 million for new and replacement transit vehicles, like buses and ferries, and a replacement of the Veterans Bridge between South Portland and Portland that includes bike paths, sidewalks, and lanes for transit vehicles.

This is a huge, positive development for affordable and environmentally-friendly transportation advocates in Portland. The projects moving forward stand in stark contrast to the ten projects first proposed late last year.

When I first wrote about the PACTS high priority projects last October, six of the top seven projects were exclusively road or highway construction projects. The north-of-Portland transit proposal came in a distant eighth, and its chances of moving forward looked extremely unlikely.

But thanks to public outcry from hundreds of Portlanders, PACTS began changing its tune last spring, by increasing its recommended funding for transit vehicles. Record-high gas prices over the summer, and increased concerns over the highway system's fiscal sustainability, also seem to have helped PACTS see the light.

Now, two major highway projects that had seemed likely to go forward last winter - a second Gorham bypass and the widening of I-295, for a combined cost of $65 million - are off the list.

The High Priority Projects Committee will continue to hold a few more meetings to vet the proposals with the public and with the regional Chamber of Commerce. Then the proposals will go to Maine's congressional delegation for (hopeful) inclusion in the 2009 transportation bill. Luckily, PACTS is now on track to make a recommendation we can all get behind.

To everyone who wrote a letter, attended a meeting, or shoehorned an elected official to get these priorities straight - great work!

UPDATE: More details on this afternoon's meetings:

First, I'd like to extend credit to Committee member and Portland City Councilor Kevin Donoghue, who made the motion to eliminate the I-295 widening from the list of projects and convinced enough fellow committee members to follow his lead. I'd also like to praise Cape Elizabeth's Town Manager Mike McGovern, whom I found to be exceptionally reasonable and helped fellow committee members sort through the complexities of funding these projects. The committee's vote to eliminate I-295 from the list of projects was a close one, at 5-4.

Second, to clarify, the $70 million earmark request for transit north of Portland will be set aside for a project that is yet to be determined, pending the outcomes of the Portland North Transportation Study.

That study will be conducted by MDOT, but thankfully NOT by its highway engineers. It will analyze which routes will be most cost-effective and carry the most riders to do the most benefit, and whether it should be a commuter rail or bus rapid transit line. This analysis is required under the National Environmental Policy Act and will help ensure that the money is put to the best possible use.

The general routes under consideration are from Portland to Yarmouth, and thence to Brunswick on one line, and to Lewiston/Auburn on a second line. Whether commuter rail or bus rapid transit is chosen, these transit lines could easily be extended south on existing rail and bus routes to Biddeford/Saco.