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

Friday, January 30, 2009

Exit 6: The Interchange Must Change

The recently-completed Peninsula Transit Study found that Exit 6, the cloverleaf interchange at the junction of I-295 and Forest Avenue, was one of the single biggest impediments to pedestrian and bicycle travel in the city, and that it needed major changes.

This interchange occupies almost 14 acres of land that sits smack dab in between our city's major University campus, our city's most used park, a rapidly-developing neighborhood, and they city's primary supermarket. Instead of facilitating access between these major destinations, Exit 6 confounds access, forces people to get in their cars for short trips, and adds significantly to traffic congestion in the neighborhood and on the freeway. It's also extremely dangerous for driver, who are forced into hair-raising merges on the exit's short ramps.

A more pedestrian-friendly diamond interchange, on the other hand, would make driving safer, make it easier to walk between Bayside, Deering Oaks, and the USM campus, and free up fourteen acres of land for redevelopment and parkland.

This is what it could look like (roll your mouse over the image, or click it for an enlargement):

Click Me

Radically improved mobility through the neighborhood, whether by foot or by vehicle; acres of new parkland; millions of square feet of new office or housing space; millions of dollars added to the city's annual property tax revenue. Selling the excess land for redevelopment would fund the entire project at no cost to taxpayers.

The idea is so fraught with common sense and possibility for improving our city that, naturally, the Maine Department of Transportation's pinhead bureaucrats up in Augusta are against it. Their proposed project would cost a million dollars and do practically nothing to resolve the intersection's numerous safety problems.

Dan Stewart, who is supposedly our advocate for pedestrian issues in Augusta (makes me shudder to think what someone in Augusta who's indifferent to pedestrians would do), had this to say in an e-mail:

" I would think that pedestrian advocates would not want to delay these planned improvements for the years that it would take to study, develop and fund a diamond interchange, if indeed a diamond interchange is determined to be the appropriate thing to do in the area. Initial analysis has shown significant issues to creating a diamond interchange including possible widening of both Forest Avenue and I 295."
Translation from bureaucrat-speak: "we hate the idea of selling the land, we hate the Transit Study, and we'll drag our feet for years to spite your hateful city."

I'm especially fond of Dan's last sentence: MDOT's "analysis" says that in order to make the interchange smaller and more efficient, we'd need to widen it.

I can understand why they'd want to keep Exit 6 the way it is. It's loopy, just like them!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

URGENT action alert: call Reps. Michaud and Pingree for better transit funding in the stimulus

Passing this along from T4America...

After a flurry of activity over the last two days, the amendment offered by Rep. Jerrold Nadler to add $3 billion to the transit funding in the House Economy Recovery and Revitalization Act has cleared the Rules Committee and will reach the floor for a vote, possibly as early as Wednesday at noon.

Click for information on making a call

Thanks to everyone who has helped thus far, either by calling on behalf of DeFazio’s (withdrawn) amendment or calling House leadership.

But it’s not over yet. This is our last best chance to change the substance of the stimulus package in the House.

Now that it has made it to the floor, we need votes! We are asking all of you to call your Representatives and urge them to support this amendment that will add desperately needed funds to the transit portion of the House recovery package. The window is potentially very short, with only a few hours for action!

Tell your Reps to support the amendment offered by U.S. Representatives Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Peter DeFazio (D- OR), Dan Lipinski (D-IL), Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Michael McMahon (D-NY) to increase transit capital funding. Specifically, the amendment would provide $1.5 billion in funding for transit capital improvement program and $1.5 billion for the New Starts Program, raising the total funding level for transit and rail in the recovery bill to $12 billion.

In the poll released a few weeks ago by Transportation For America and the National Association of Realtors, fully 80% of respondents said that stimulus funds should not only create jobs, but also help us meet the goals of reducing oil dependence, improving the environment and increasing transportation options. Now is the time to increase much needed funding for public transportation.

Transportation For America has identified more than $5 billion in new transit extension and rail projects that could be ready to go in 120 days, generating over 178,000 new jobs. These investments could put people to work building and operating rail cars and bus vehicles, in the steel and concrete industries and in design and planning professions.

You can also use these talking points from the National Association of City Transportation Officials, via Streetsblog:

Transit is the future of our nation’s metropolitan regions which represent 80% of the US population. Public transit ridership has been surging over the last year, but instead of capitalizing on the public demand for more and better transit, cities are being forced to curtail service and cut jobs.

These modest adjustments will result in far-reaching impact on mobility, pollution reduction, and economic stimulation in metropolitan regions.

Discuss the transit need in your city and the fact that federal resources for transit can absolutely be spent within the timeframes set out by the bill.

Click for information on making a call

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Ocean Properties sneaks out of town

Walsh told the city that he was too occupied with projects in places like Bar Harbor to pursue the Maine State Pier project in Portland.
Tom Walsh (pictured) of Ocean Properties quietly stole out of town last week, leaving his lawyer to explain that, contrary to is insistence to the contrary last year, he actually doesn't have enough money to build a hotel and office building on the Maine State Pier.

What? Ocean Properties isn't following through on their promises? I know - it's crazy, right?

And so, the Maine State Pier project dies once again. Although, even though its lifeless corpse has been beaten so thoroughly that you could drink it with a straw, we shouldn't be too surprised if some politician tries to revive it one more time.

[2011 update: sure enough, mayoral "candidate" Ethan Strimling wants to resurrect the real estate bubble, and has made Maine State Pier whining a centerpiece of his campaign! AND he's also hired Bob Baldacci, the sleazy Ocean Properties developer with the fake tan, to fundraise for his campaign.]

Walsh's departure should be a serious embarrassment to half of the City Council, and especially those who tried to make political hay out of the Olympia Companies' failed bid to develop the pier a few months ago.

Councilors Dan Skolnik and Dory Waxman, in particular, have made connecting their political buddies at Ocean Properties into the city's Pier negotiations process their primary focus on the Council and in their campaigns - and now they have nothing to show for it.

Left: Councilor Dan Skolnik. Or is it ex-Councilor Jim Cloutier? Or Councilor Waxman? Maybe Councilor Mavodones, or Councilor Duson? They all look so much alike these days...

Two years of wasted time and debate on the Maine State Pier fiasco has done incredible damage to Portland's civic environment by introducing a level of corruption and political skulduggery unseen in decades: from out-of-town union goons flooding "public hearings" at City Hall, to Tony Armstrong's (a vindictive sleazebag from Cape Elizabeth) illegitimate hatchet job against Ed Suslovic.

But the damage to Portland's economic development and urban environment has also been substantial. The economics for putting a big hotel and office building on an unstable pier in the ocean were always questionable; any politician who honestly believed the developers' promises, especially in this economic climate, is probably too ignorant of financial issues to lead our city.

Meanwhile, the whole two-year fiasco distracted our city, its developers, and our planning resources from neighborhoods where this kind of development is more economical and realistic: places like the Eastern Waterfront (which is still mostly empty) and Bayside.

When Jim Cloutier, Dory Waxman, Jill Duson, and others offered preferential treatment to Ocean Properties to develop a huge hotel and office complex on city property, that sent a clear message to other private-sector developers that it would be difficult for them to compete, and that they should hold off on building their own projects on private land.

But now that the MSP chimera is (hopefully) gone, maybe Portland can finally focus on real development projects - projects that can provide unvarnished benefits to our workers and our economy, instead of producing nothing but political bile.

More on the Maine State Pier business here.

And read more about Ocean Properties' credibility issues in this article from the Palm Beach Post.

Finally, one more link to improve Tony Armstrong's Google results: as this Bollard article makes clear, real estate broker Tony Armstrong is a lying, vindictive sleazebag from Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Cheonggyecheon is a small stream that once flowed from a cirque of mountains that surround the historic center of Seoul into the Han River, 6 kilometers away.

In the years immediately following the Korean War, Cheonggyecheon was overrun by informal refugee camps, shantytowns, and sewage. The stream was soon paved over for a wide boulevard; in 1968, during Korea's own urban renewal fad, an elevated highway was stacked above the road. In spite of its historic and cultural significance to Korea, Cheonggyecheon spent over half a century in an underground culvert, choked with filth.

Then, in 2003, in an act of political will that seems miraculous to me, Seoul mayor Lee Myung-bak began a project to remove 16 lanes of stacked expressway and restore the lost stream beneath. Two years later, a vibrant, wild park had replaced a traffic-choked freeway. Believe it or not, the two photos above show the same section of stream (the two buildings in the center-right of the top photo, taken sometime early in the 2000s, are the same two buildings on the left side of the bottom photo).

Tearing out a huge downtown freeway didn't create mass gridlock, as the project's opponents had promised: traffic actually moves faster and more smoothly today than it did when the freeway was there. In an interview with the Guardian two years ago, Kee Yeon Hwang, a professor of urban planning, said that "as soon as we destroyed the road, the cars just disappeared and drivers changed their habits. A lot of people just gave up their cars. Others found a different way of driving. In some cases, they kept using their cars but changed their routes." In other words, people aren't as stupid as traffic engineers think they are. Koreans gave the project a definitive seal of approval when they gave Lee Myung-bak, the project's primary political champion, a promotion to the presidency in 2007.

By replacing idling cars with a naturalized waterway, Seoul also lowered summer temperatures in the center of the city and improved air quality and circulation. The Cheonggyecheon isn't yet a functioning watershed: the water flowing from the "headwaters" in the center of Seoul is currently being pumped uphill from the Han, instead of trickling down from the mountains. But it's still attracting wildlife, including fish and herons, and there are more plans in the works to restore elements of the stream's natural hydrology.

Of all the parts of the park I've looked at, this one's my favorite: three remnant highway abutments standing in the middle of the stream like a utopian apocalypse scene - a glimmer of hope that the brutal regime of freeways and highway engineering is losing its grip on the world's cities. Credit for the photo goes to Flickr user Ben Harris-Roxas:

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Updated: Carsharing has officially come to Portland

Earlier this week, U Haul delivered Portland's first-ever shared cars to dedicated parking spots on Commercial and Elm Streets (next to the ferry terminal and Monument Square, respectively). As of this morning, U Car Share's online reservation system is active, and at least one Portlander (I think that Alex Landry got the first ride) has taken the new cars for a spin.

Portlanders can now sign up at www.ucarshare.com. Membership starts at $50 - about the cost of one oil change and tune up - and all gasoline, maintenance, and insurance costs are included in the hourly charge. Portland Greenstreets participants should check their latest newsletter for a limited-time free membership offer.

Here's a screenshot of U Car Share's newly-active reservations webpage:

Once you've made a reservation online, you can use your membership card to unlock the vehicle at the designated time and retrieve the keys to the ignition, which are stored inside.

Pictured at right are the two U Cars parked in their designated spots at Monument Square, across the street from the central METRO bus stop.

I can't say I'm very thrilled at U Car's choice of vehicle - a Chrysler PT Cruiser hatchback. If you could compare the American auto industry to a festering, cancerous colon (which shouldn't require too much imagination), then the PT Cruiser may earn a footnote in history as one of its pathetic, terminal turds.

It's also unfortunate that they also have Massachusetts license plates, which will make them even more embarrassing to drive them around here.

Still, I suppose that they're fairly utilitarian, with plenty of cargo space in spite of their small size. Maybe you can't save thousands of dollars in transportation costs in style, but the U Cars will get you around, without the time- and money-consuming hassles of car ownership. Being mistaken for a Masshole is a small price to pay in comparison.

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!