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

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Downtown Yarmouth, Maine

For anyone who still has any doubts about how brain-dead and/or sadistic Maine's traffic engineers are, I present these photographs of Route One through the village center in Yarmouth, Maine.

This is the view towards the town post office and a large elderly housing complex. The town's main supermarket is just up the hill from here. Hundreds of homes lie within a half-mile radius of this intersection, and would be within easy walking distance of these village-center services if the road through the center of it all weren't explicitly designed to promote speeding, aggressive driving, and road rage in general.

And here's a detail of the crosswalk. If you've successfully managed to cross five lanes of traffic without getting hit, they've thoughtfully installed a guardrail that forces you to stay in the roadway for just a while longer. It's like they've offered you a ladder out of a pool of sharks, but the last three rungs are missing.

After decades of mismanaging tax dollars and bungling the design and construction of our transportation infrastructure, MDOT is now facing big shortfalls and substantial layoffs. Couldn't happen to a nicer agency, if you ask me.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Franklin Arterial-to-Boulevard project begins!

Planning for the transformation of Franklin Arterial to Franklin Boulevard will officially get underway next month with two public meetings at City Hall. The details:

Thursday, December 4th, 6:30-8:00 in Portland City Hall’s State of Maine Room (2nd floor, at the western end of the building).
This will be the initial organizing meeting for the Franklin Corridor Study, led by co-chairs Markos Miller of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Association and Boyd Marley, one of Portland's representatives to the 123rd Legislature.

Wednesday, December 17th, 6:30-8:00, also in the State of Maine Room

Find out more about the project at franklinstreet.us

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Carsharing (at last) is coming to Portland

Last night at City Hall, Councilors voted to dedicate four prime parking spots (two near Monument Square and two more near Casco Bay Lines ferry terminal) to U-Car Share, a relatively new subsidiary of U-Haul. In about a month, U-Car Share will deliver four PT Cruisers to Portland to launch our first carsharing service. John Richardson has the whole story in today's Press Herald.

After years of trying to attract Zipcar, I'm very glad we're getting U-Car instead. This young and growing carsharing company will be able to devote more attention and resources to Portland as one of its base markets - and having the resources of an established company like U-Haul behind it will also help tremendously. Hopefully we'll see relatively rapid growth, with new shared U-Cars coming to Munjoy Hill, USM, and the West End. I'll update the blog again as soon as U-Car launches its new reservations and membership web site for Portland.

U-Car Share's Web Site (includes a "frequently asked questions" page with details on how carsharing works): www.ucarshare.com

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Veterans' Bridge Bike Path

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The map above, a detail of the Portland Bike Route Map, shows how the Veterans' Bridge Bike Path (in light green) could connect to bike routes on either side of the Fore River. This project would also be a great opportunity to improve the terrible intersection of St. John and Commercial Streets with the Fore River Parkway, in the West End.

And here's what it should look like: wide, separated from traffic, and full of bikes and pedestrians [image from NYC's Transportation Alternatives]:

20 Minutes by Bike from the Maine Mall to Downtown Portland

Discussions are officially underway about replacing Veteran's Bridge, the shortest path between Portland's waterfront and the Maine Mall area. Tonight is the first public meeting to discuss what kind of replacement gets built. Here's a message from Erik Osborne, Chair of Portland's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee:
On Monday night (6 PM, Portland City Hall, State of Maine Room) DOT will be soliciting public feedback on the proposed replacement of Veteran's Bridge, which connects Rt.1 from SoPo to the Peninsula. DOT needs to hear from you that the new bridge design should focus on alternative tranporation modes: cycling, transit, and walking. DOT has recieved federal funding to fast-track replacement of this bridge. Construction will start next year. They say that new bridge may last 50 to 100 years, so it is critical that it be designed for the transporation future we want to see.

Alternative transportation advocates (that would be you all) have long identified this bridge as an important missing link in our bike/ped infrastructure for two big reasons:

1) There are plans for major bike/ped facilities on either side of the bridge: Commercial St., Fore R, and Thomson's Pt. trails in Portland, and in SoPo the West End Trails project has big plans for a network of trails connecting brick hill, the jetport area, the mall, Long Creek, etc. Vets' bridge would be a direct connection between these networks, which would be huge!

2) Vets' bridge could be a great and much needed alternate route to Congress St. for getting between the Peninsula & the jetport/mall area.

Here's another really important point: this project is to replace the bridge only. Perhaps more critical for bike/ped are the connections on either end, which are really a mess right now. In order for DOT to be convinced that they need to build *any* bike/ped facilities on the bridge at all, they need to know that the Cities on either end are committed to making these connections. We need to make sure DOT knows they won't be building a "bikepath to nowhere". I think that the reasons mentioned above make a strong case that this isn't true. Portland's recent Active Transportation Project application is another solid example of local commitment. Also, remember that PACTS priority request for money to replace the bridge? Well, now that bridge replacement is being funded by another mechanism, it was suggested the PACTS request could be divereted to making the needed bike/ped connections on either end.

Still, it would be very helpful Council members from both towns present to speak up for local commitment.

Dan Stewart, DOT's bike/ped coordinator, is on our side on this one, but the rest of DOT's project team may need some convincing. So please show up and speak up - 6 PM, upstairs at City Hall.

Please forward this to your friends and associates.

- Erik
I'll see you there!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ding, Dong, the Pier Deal's Dead

The Maine State Pier redevelopment deal is dead after the state refused to relinquish its ownership rights to the submerged lands under the pier. This morning's Press Herald has the whole story.

Players from the same Tammany Hall crew that made a shit-show of the original pier negotiations have just been elected to the new City Council and are in the process of buying the ailing daily paper, so let's hope that the state's ownership claim puts the kibosh on any redevelopment discussions for a good while longer.

There are much better, much more productive redevelopment opportunities all over downtown Portland: Franklin Arterial, Bayside, Gorham's Corner, the Eastern Waterfront. Why the City and these developers continue to sow divisiveness and waste money by trying to install a tacky tourist valhalla on our working waterfront is beyond me.

There's more sordid news from the Maine State Pier fiasco in the archives. Let's hope that we can put it to rest for a good long while.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Snowplows on Sidewalks

It's November, which means that it's time for Portland's City Council to debate how it's going to enforce the city's sidewalk-shoveling laws.

Last year's policy wasn't a great success. Here's how the sidewalk watchdog at portlandsidewalks.org describes it:

The city gives property owners 24 hours after the end of a snowstorm to clear their adjacent sidewalk of ice and snow. For corner lot owners this responsibility includes clearing the sidewalk along the side and providing access to the street. After that 24-hour period, sidewalks blocked with snow should be reported... The reported address is then forwarded to the City Inspections Department who then send out an inspector to verify and then notify the owner that they have another 24 hours to comply with the city ordinance. Inspections Department then will make a follow-up visit and if the walk is still not cleared they will contact Portland Public Works who will then come by and clear that sidewalk and charge the property owner for this expense. The code further states that there is a flat fine of $250 for business properties who willfully plow snow onto a city sidewalk.
And here's how that worked in practice (also courtesy of portlandsidewalks.org):

Left to right: State Street, Fore Street, and Preble Street.

As the photos show, some property owners were diligent, but that hardly mattered much if the neighbor was a deadbeat. Unsurprisingly, people were hesitant to narc on their neighbors. And the City's convoluted enforcement system meant that even those sidewalks that got reported didn't have much incentive to shovel as quickly as they should have.

This year, the Portland Bike/Ped Committee has asked the city to increase its budget for plowing sidewalks. We spend tax dollars to clear the middle of the streets for cars; why aren't we doing the same for pedestrians on the sidewalk? Getting a city plow to clear the sidewakls is certainly more efficient than having dozens of different shovelers clearing the sidewalks in a patchwork fashion. That said, if the city can't come through with the best solution, then having individual homeowners clear the sidewalk is still going to be important.

At a meeting last week, the city did decide to increase the public sidewalk plowing budget. Bike/Ped Committee member Gary Higginbottom attended the public safety hearing and offered this account to the rest of the group's e-mail list:

"Initial discussion by the Public Safety Committee and by Michael Bobinsky of the Dept. of Public Services focused on their conclusion that there simply are not enough City staff resources to track sidewalk snow removal violations throughout the whole city, so whether or not snow removal is required in the off-peninsula area, enforcement will be focused on the peninsula. Further discussion explored whether the Committee should recognize and "codify" the fact that off-peninsula sidewalk snow removal simply won't be enforced. By "codification" they meant acknowledging the reality of off-peninsula non-enforcement by exempting off-peninsula landowners (except commercial owners) from the sidewalk clearing requirement. Essentially the Committee decided that such an exemption is a bad idea, and they passed that opinion back to the full City Council for final action - hopefully before the snow flies.

"The Committee ended up by passing two items back to the City Council (here is where I'm a little fuzzy). On the matter of dropping the snow-removal requirement for off-peninsula areas... the Committee unanimously opposed that motion with its amendments and sent the motion back to Council with their negative assessment.

"The Committee then formulated and unanimously approved an alternative motion to continue the policy of requiring snow removal from sidewalks throughout the city - both on- and off-peninsula [plus amendments to extend the time for snow removal in extenuating circumstances and to clear snowbanks at street crossings]. This motion was sent back to the Council with the Public Safety Committee's positive assessment.

"Among my global-perspective comments about the drastic need to rearrange American public resource allocation priorities from military occupation and regime change to at-home, non-destructive measures such as city-wide snow removal (and infrastructure reconstruction in general - to say nothing of health care, no child left unfunded etc.), I suggested that more people should be made aware that the City will be plowing 30 more miles of City sidewalks - a very good thing -- although efficiency arguments would seem to favor having City equipment and crews be funded to clear virtually ALL sidewalks instead of relying on the citizen sidewalk militia - despite whatever physical fitness benefits might accrue to the citizenry.

"Other public speakers at the Nov. 5 meeting made the point that all sidewalks are a 12-month/year infrastructure resource with 12-month users. There should be 12-month availability - just like roads."

Let GM Fail

By Signe Wilkinson

Here's a topic on which I can agree with the right-wing Cato Institute: General Motors doesn't need a bailout, it needs to shut down.

GM, as a company, is every bit as bloated and inefficient as the lemon gas-guzzlers it sells. Democrats are rushing to its defense right now, in the name of organized labor. But the mismanagement at GM has already drained hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs from the workforce. The autoworking unions, which sometimes seem more interested in helping their dwindling members make boat payments than they are in boosting downtrodden workers, could also use a shake-up. Giving a rotten company more money so that it can keep on rotting will be as bad for workers as it is for taxpayers.

More important, though, is that the auto industry just isn't that important to the American economy in the 21st century. GM is a corporate antique - about as relevant today as American Can was in 1929. Regardless of what happens to GM, Ford, or Chrysler, demographic trends indicate that the number of cars scrapped will exceed the number of new cars sold for at least the next four years.

The future of American manufacturing lies elsewhere, in the construction of telecommunications infrastructure, railroads, and efficient, renewable energy projects. GM is nineteenth-century relic and a ball and chain on our economy. It's time to say "good riddance."

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Change is coming

In two months, we'll have a city-dwelling, bike-riding president and a rail-commuter vice president.

Throughout his campaign, Barack Obama made it clear that he understands the relationships between global warming, the health of our cities, our reliance on expensive oil, the health of our economy, and our transportation system.

Maine's Turnpike Authority and Department of Transportation have consistently proven that they don't understand the connections among these challenges. During the next four years, these agencies will either change radically, or find themselves starved of funding.

Among those in the running to lead the federal Department of Transportation are Congressman Earl Blumenauer (who gets around car-free in DC with his bike and deserves a lot of credit for making the other Portland the transit and bike-friendly nirvana it is), Congressman Jim Oberstar, and Jeanette Sadik-Khan, a congestion-pricing advocate who is currently tearing out car lanes and replacing them with protected bike lanes and public plazas in New York City. All three have done a lot to tear down highway-building orthodoxy already, and all three would bring tremendous changes to federal transportation policy.

Already, Democrats in Congress are talking about a "green infrastructure" stimulus package, which could invest billions in transit projects and basic maintenance nationwide. Because Maine's DOT has dropped the ball on planning new transit services, Maine won't even be at the table for hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of federal funds.

The Turnpike Authority and MDOT need to get with the program. It's our way or the highway - and the highway isn't an option anymore.

Monday, November 3, 2008

TNAC: The Fallacy of Freeways

The Next American City looks into the movement to do away with useless freeways in revitalizing cities.

“The broken windows theory definitely applies to freeways,” says Steven Filmanowicz, communications director of the Congress for the New Urbanism. “They cause blight, cast shadows and vibrate. There never seems to be a pleasant place to be underneath one, and in neighborhoods surrounding them, crime often goes up.”

Saying that Portland "needs" I-295 is like saying that Portland needs blight and pollution. Or that we need local jobs to move out into the suburbs.

Maybe MDOT could just cut to the chase and just give us a hole in the head instead.