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

Monday, January 5, 2009

2008: The Year in Review

This may be a week late, but I thought it would be a good idea to take stock of everything that Portland-area transportation activists have accomplished in the past year. It's a pretty impressive list, and I think it demonstrates pretty clearly what a few committed activists can do. Let's keep this momentum going for an even better 2009!

The year in human-powered transportation:
In February, Portland passed its first bike parking ordinance, which will require conveniently-located bike racks in every new development for the city. Soon afterwards, the city installed a quiver of new bike hitches along Congress Street, and more are on their way: a new bike hitch purchase program allows businesses and building managers to buy their own hitches at a subsidized price and have city staff install them.

Shared "white bikes" appeared and quickly disappeared in Portland.

Over the summer, the City and the University of Maine undertook a number of landmark street-improvement projects that improved walkability, bikeability, and neighborhood vitality. Marginal Way slimmed down and gained some improved sidewalks and crosswalks, and Commercial Street gained a stretch of bike lanes. But in my personal opinion, the most striking improvement was to Bedford Street through the new USM campus:

And a more livable, humane Franklin Street moved closer to reality, as planners cobbled together enough funding for an official redesign study. That project's citizen advisory committee began work earlier this winter. And planning is getting underway for a replacement Veterans Bridge, which connects the West End to the Maine Mall area. Sometime in 2010, cyclists will be able to take a leisurely, 20 minute ride from downtown Portland to the Maine Mall on bike lanes and off-street paths (and pedestrians will be able to make the same trip on sidewalks, improved crosswalks, and trails, in about an hour's walk).

There were some setbacks, too: over the summer, with MDOT dipshits at the helm, South Portland's Exit 3 was rebuilt with practically no regard for pedestrians or cyclists. As a result, it's virtually impossible for most South Portland residents (who live in neighborhoods east of I-295) to walk or bicycle the short distance to the jobs and services of the Maine Mall area, at least until next year's Veterans Bridge replacement project builds a new bike/ped connection across Long Creek.

We can take heart, though, that this kind of boner won't be repeated, thanks to...

The year in sabotaging idiotic highway plans
It's hard to believe, but just one year ago, MDOT was talking about widening I-295 through Portland into a six-lane freeway, and PACTS, the regional metro planning group, had drawn up a list of ten "high-priority" projects, eight of which involved highway expansions.

Last January, I got some attention (and this blog found some new readers) by proposing to do away with I-295 altogether - why does Portland need a freeway that cuts through the middle of our city? Is it really so important that people in Falmouth Foreside can get to the Mall three minutes faster? We'll be discussing these questions some more in the year ahead.

But the bigger impact came in a pair of public meetings on the 295 widening plan and the PACTS high-priority projects list. Despite the highway engineers' best efforts to make people leave early with their skull-numbing Powerpoint slides on "level of service" and "ramp geometry," over a hundred people spoke out at City Hall to reject Augusta's expensive plans to ruin Portland with more traffic.

That meeting got some attention, and the PPH editorial board chimed in with some MDOT criticism of its own. Then, in February, PACTS held a public meeting on its highway-heavy "high priority projects" list, and was overwhelmed when hundreds of people turned out to reject the new pavement proposals. Thanks to excellent organizing from the League of Young Voters, it was, by far, the most well-attended public meeting in PACTS history.

Even though PACTS tried to game the outcome, by holding additional meetings in the suburbs (with single-digit attendance) and even paying for an expensive public-opinion poll (which largely confirmed what we'd been saying in the first place), the turnout had a huge impact. PACTS ultimately approved a short list of "green high priority projects": new transit vehicles and a ferry, plus expanded train service north of Portland and a bike/ped-accessible replacement for Veterans Bridge.

We didn't just sink a lousy idea; we made better ideas more likely to be funded in the future. And you'd better believe that MDOT and PACTS will have to be a lot more careful with what they propose in the future: Portland now has a well-organized, intelligent community watching MDOT's ideologues to ensure that they won't pave over our vibrant economy or our quality of life.

The year in better neighborhoods
Augusta passed new incentives for historic preservation projects, and a new statewide building code, which will make future downtown redevelopment and construction projects easier to get done.

In February, big urban redevelopment schemes were proposed in Bayside. An office building/parking garage combo from the recession-proof health care industry even managed to survive the credit crunch, and looks likely to begin construction next spring. A redevelopment scheme was also proposed for Munjoy Hill's Adams School, but the proposal included too much "open space" and not enough housing, and was sent back to the drawing board to be reworked.

Marginal Way's slimmer look and new sidewalks matched the new urban-scaled buildings that finished construction this past fall, and active street-level uses made it possible to imagine Marginal Way as Bayside's Main Street. Too bad the front, sidewalk-facing door to the AAA building is always locked, forcing neighborhood walkers to bushwhack around the building to the back, parking-lot facing lobby. I guess it's only appropriate that an Automobile Association would want to give the middle finger to pedestrians.

The Eastern Waterfront was supposed to be a high-density urban neighborhood full of mid-rise condos by now, but thanks to the city's tortured permitting process and the subprime crisis, the only thing that's been built is a hulking parking garage. At least the residents of the townhouses up the hill, who protested and sank a complex of taller residential buildings next door on the Village Cafe site, have a nice potholed lot and a huge cinder-block wall to look at. The Maine State Pier languished in its very own circle of political hell.

But, on a more positive note, Bayside gained a pair of handsome new additions with the mixed-income Pearl Place apartments and the Bayside East senior housing complex on Oxford Street. And Munjoy Hill sprouted a handful of neat infill projects, the biggest of which was the 21-unit 135 Sheridan building (the latter project also contributed to the construction of a handsome trail connection between Sheridan Street and Fort Sumner Park).

And, in October, Portland took a huge step towards making high-quality urban development more feasible in our city, by loosening our 1960s-era parking requirements and adding more flexibility for developers to work around the new one-space-per-unit guideline. The previous zoning, which had required two parking spaces for every housing unit and apartment in Portland, effectively prohibited affordable housing because building parking lots and garages has become more expensive than building kitchens and bedrooms. The new requirement is still pretty restrictive, but it's also a huge step in the right direction.

The year in driving less
Record-high gas prices over the spring and summer prompted hordes of Mainers to leave their cars in the driveway, and for the first time in its history, the Maine Turnpike witnessed an annual decline in traffic. In response, Maine Turnpork Authority bureaucrats rolled out a plan to raise tolls 30% - a measure that will surely drive more people onto busses and trains. The Turnpork Authority also thinks it would be a good idea to spend $40 million on a tollbooth right about now. In September, the credit crunch forced Augusta to postpone a highway bond sale.

Meanwhile, bike shops recorded record-breaking business, even as car dealerships foreshadowed the bailout begathon. Portland-area journalists also tried two wheels this summer.

Carsharing came to Maine to help cure the auto-age hangover: first, Zipcar came to college campuses in Biddeford, Brunswick, and Lewiston. At the end of the year, U Car Share, a subsidiary of UHaul, announced that it would provide Portland's first carsharing service (beginning any day now).

The state legislature approved a funding mechanism to expand Downeaster service to Freeport and Brunswick by July 2010. The Downeaster also added wi-fi connections on its trains, making it possible for riders to use the train as a mobile office. GoMaine added new vanpool routes. And Portland wrapped up a landmark new Transit Study, which targeted socialized parking downtown and drew up plans for how we can provide much better public transit services and safer streets for not much money.

What's next in 2009
Grassroots advocates in Portland have powerful new allies in the Obama administration and newly-powerful, bike/ped/transit-savvy committee chairpersons in Congress. With top-down mandates from Washington, worsening fiscal conditions, and continued grassroots pressure from the people, Augusta's ultra-conservative traffic engineers will find themselves in an increasingly helpless position. Let's keep it up!

An anticipated federal stimulus package in Washington could send Maine millions of dollars for sidewalks, bike routes, transit vehicles, and railway rehabilitations, and fast-track projects like the Bayside Promenade and the expansion of the Downeaster. We'll have to keep a close eye on Collins and Snowe, our swing votes in the Senate, to make sure that the package doesn't turn into a barrel of pork for the troglodyte sand/gravel/oil industries.

On the local level, getting the Transit Study's recommendations implemented will be the top priority. Getting the city to charge more for parking might be politically difficult, but with increasingly dire budget outlooks and increasing demand for transit, it shouldn't be too difficult to convince the city that socialist prices for on-street parking is a luxury we can no longer afford. Parking revenues should be plowed into improved bus service; in fact, in an ideal world, the city's parking division will be rolled under the authority of Metro and managed as another transportation resource, like the city's buses.

Livable streets advocates will focus on Exit 6 in Portland, the cloverleaf interchange that divides Bayside from Deering Oaks and the USM campus. The Transit Study calls for transforming this intersection into a more compact and pedestrian-friendly diamond interchange. MDOT is already resisting, even in their weakened state, but this one should be a slam dunk. And we should have solid plans in hand for Franklin Street by the end of this year; soon it will be time to think about how to turn the plans into reality.

As the state fiscal crisis continues, it will get even harder for the Maine Turnpork Authority to justify its extravagant expansion plans. Stay tuned for State House legislation that will force the MTA to spend a portion of its money on frequent, 14-hour-a-day commuter bus services from Augusta to York County.

Here's to a great year ahead!

1 comment:

Corey Templeton said...

Wow, quite a recap. A pretty good year overall I say. Thanks for all the posting that you do and here's to another year of progress!