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

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Why Route 8 Has to Go

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the local bus company is looking to raise fares in order to fill-in a big budget shortfall this year. But while METRO's fares have long been a bargain compared to other transit agencies (and compared to car ownership) there are serious and legitimate concerns that raising fares will impose a regressive tax on some of the city's poorest residents.

But in all the talk about raising fares, I'm astonished that there hasn't been much consideration to cutting costs. With that, I'd like to take a look at the bus route that goes right next to my apartment: Route 8.

In the four years I've lived at this address, in spite of the fact that its nearest bus stop is closer to my front door than our car's parking spot in the driveway out back, and in spite of the fact that I am a fairly regular bus-rider, I have never ridden a Route 8 bus.

I don't ride Route 8 for the same reason any other healthy and able-bodied person doesn't ride Route 8: if you live in any of the in-town neighborhoods "served" by the 8, it is almost always faster for you to walk where you're going than to wait and ride its serpentine route through the city.

A couple of winters ago, a local doctor and blogger thought he'd do the right thing for the environment by riding the 8 from his apartment in the West End to his office downtown. He chronicled the fiasco here; it's an excellent critique. An excerpt:

The city transit system boasts the motto "Convenient, Affordable, and Eco-Friendly!" ... I live in one of the two major in-town residential neighborhoods. My office is in the major business area. There is a city bus that stops right at my driveway, and I had seen a bus with the same number going right by my office.

I'm sorry to report that the experiment was not encouraging. The good news: the bus indeed picked me up in front of my house and dropped me in front of my office, for $1.25. The bad news: everything else. Convenient? Dubious. The true route turned out to be even more serpentine than the map, to which it bore little relation. After ten minutes of riding, we had driven ten blocks but were still only two blocks away from [my house]. Passenger stops tended to be agonizingly long, due to the need to deploy various ramps or pneumatic lowering mechanisms for persons with walkers or other disabilities-- even then, these people had difficulty getting on and off. Then at one point a boarding passenger shoved a handful of coins into the till, causing it to jam... In the end, it took 22 minutes to travel the 0.9 miles to downtown-- about 2.5mph.

Affordable? Also questionable. Through a subsidized city program, I could probably park my car in a downtown garage for less than the $2.50 it would cost me to ride the bus to work and back. Eco-friendly? Again, I am skeptical. Even at 8am on a Monday morning, there were only five people on the huge bus. The route was so circuitous, and the bus probably so grossly oversized, that I'm sure it would've used less fossil fuel if each of us had simply driven our own small cars straight from home to work. Also, as we lumbered along we frequently blocked car traffic behind us, slowing down the general efficiency and gas mileage of everyone on the road.
In short: the 8 is so inconvenient that the only people who ride the 8 tend to be people who have no other choice - the elderly and the handicapped (plus the occasional hapless do-gooder like Dr. Turbo, who rides it once and never makes the same mistake again). It's probably not the most environmentally-friendly option and it gives city-dwellers who try it the false impression that all of METRO's routes are just as inconvenient. And as long as it's burning lots of gas to serve only a handful of passengers, it's not budget-friendly, either.*

Route 8 is important for the few many people who use it, though. Its route is circuitous because it needs to cover all of the city's affordable housing complexes and social services. Still, smaller vans equipped with lifts would be easier for the elderly and the handicapped to ride in than big, unwieldy city buses.

In the same blog post, Dr. Turbo the one-time rider offers these suggestions to improve the 8:
1) Run speciality vans, properly outfitted, to transport people with significant disabilities door-to-door as needed (this should be a free service, in a civilized country.)
2) Streamline the routes of the in-town buses such that average, car-owning people might actually choose to take the bus instead of drive.
3) Publish accurate maps that a person without a PdD in cartography can make sense of.
4) Buy smaller buses.

These are all great suggestions, and they happen to coincide with recommendations from Portland's new Peninsula Transit Study. The Transit Study advises METRO to make Route 8 a direct shuttle between the West End, downtown, and the USM/Hannaford area, and to establish a new "Community Bus" that hits the major destinations with no fixed route - that is, it would go wherever the riders wanted to go on the peninsula. Thus, no more wasted trips out to the fringes of East Bayside when there aren't any riders who want to go there.

Plus, "community bus services can often be operated at significantly lower cost than traditional fixed-route services by using smaller transit vehicles," the Transit Study points out. "All current riders of the Route 8 could experience a higher quality of transit service than they receive today from both a dedicated community bus as well as more regular service on improved METRO routes."

It would cost less: the savings from streamlining Route 8 and establishing a community bus service for the handicapped would easily be enough to save monthly-pass riders from a fare increase.

And a newly-simplified Route 8 - a shuttle that directly links the West End, the ferry terminal, and the USM/Hannaford area - would help attract new riders, like Dr. Turbo, by offering a transportation option that's actually faster and more convenient than walking. Federal funding for bus services is now tied to ridership gains - transit agencies that serve more passengers will receive more money - so this would also help METRO's future budget outlook.

This sounds like sensible advice, doesn't it? After all, a one-time bus-riding doctor and the experts at Nelson-Nygaard both came to roughly the same conclusions about Route 8.

Unfortunately, I wouldn't expect METRO's Board of Directors to embrace changes. Like any bureaucracy (especially one tied to a unionized workforce) they'll resist the idea of changing their operations - probably the closest they'll come to action is to call for a study. They might actually decide that it would be better to raise fares and lose customers than to make any money-saving improvements to Route 8.

That's why the City of Portland should force their hand, by cutting METRO's funding until Route 8 gets fixed. That's right: I, Christian Neal MilNeil, do hereby ask City Hall to reduce METRO's funding in the upcoming budget process unless it can proactively improve Route 8, cut costs, and save monthly riders from a fare-hike.

Your move, METRO.

*Footnote: In a follow-up email to this post, City Councilor and METRO Board chair Kevin Donoghue pointed out that "surprisingly, the #8 has a similarly strong ratio of passengers per vehicle miles as [METRO's] other strongest routes - the #1, #4, and #5 - and is much stronger by these measures than the #2, #3, #6, and #7." The 8's route is shorter, which would skew the ratio higher with fewer passengers, but nevertheless, this statistic indicates how many people rely on the route, in spite of its inconveniences.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

TIGER grants update: Maine's ports get $14 million

Washington's grant announcements for the $1.5 billion TIGER stimulus program were announced this morning. Despite its laundry list of long-shots, Maine did receive one grant: $14 million for the ports of Portland, Searsport, and Eastport. Even this award comes up short, though: the Maine Ports Authority had requested $32 million, and they'll receive less than half that. That means they'll have to either scrounge more money from the Maine DOT, which will resent the ports' energy efficiency and lack of highway lanes, or triage the projects it had hoped to accomplish.

Looking over the grant awards from other states, it's clear that Maine's wish list failed to meet the Obama administration's goals to create more livable, economically vibrant communities. Augusta wanted the money to rehab abandoned freight railways through the woods and build new roads in the most rural areas of the state; Washington wisely decided that the money would be better spent on projects like Philadelphia's bicycle and pedestrian network, a commuter rail extension west of Boston, new streetcar lines in New Orleans, Tucson, and Dallas, and light rail in downtown Detroit.

Maine's grant applications were mired in the past; the awards went to cities and states that are looking to the future. Let's hope that Augusta can learn from its failure.

This, Please

This is the kind of infrastructure we could use more of, instead of wasting millions on unnecessary highway widenings. Washed-up highway builders, take note: this is what talented engineers do these days:

Nominate Portland as a host city for this experiment here. We especially need support from Joe Gray, the city manager, and the members of the City Council.

You can read more about Google's high-speed broadband project here.

Monday, February 15, 2010

TIGER grant announcements this week

The stimulus bill passed last year included a $1.5 billion line-item for a merit-based grants program known as TIGER (Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery). This money has been held separate from traditional federal spending programs in order to fund projects that would have a particularly strong impact on economic development and community vitality, by criteria to be determined by transportation secretary Ray Lahood. This week, reports Streetsblog, those grants - the last major infrastructure funding announcement from the stimulus bill - will be announced.

First, rein in your expectations. $1.5 billion divided among 50 states evenly would net $30 for Maine. That's not exactly chump change, but there's not much our spendthrift transportation bureaucracy can do with that kind of sum - $30 million wouldn't even pay for the Maine Turnpike Authority's proposed new tollbooth in York. More likely, the $1.5 billion would be divvied up in a way that more closely matches states' populations, which means that Maine will get even less.

It might be different if Maine had proposed a radical, game-changing transportation plan for funding. It didn't. The state's TIGER grant applications read like a series of hail-Mary passes for projects with little to no real economic justification. They include:

  • The "Caribou Connector," a 4.3 mile road through potato fields designed to bypass "congestion" in a farming community of 8,000 souls;
  • The Eastport Gateway Rail project, a crutch for the moribund Port of Eastport near the Canadian border;
  • The Northern Tier Rail Preservation Project, an effort to save an east-to-west rail line through the North Woods that was recently abandoned by its for-profit owners due to lack of traffic;
  • The Mountain Division Rail Project, requesting $28.5 million to rebuild a rail line to sleepy foothill towns like Baldwin, Brownfield, and Fryeburg.
Pictured above: the Mountain Division Line, a $30 million railroad between Portland and Nowhere.

There are good reasons why no one wants to pay for these projects: all of them demand tens of millions of dollars for parts of the state where there are very few people and even less economic activity. I grew up in Steep Falls, right next to the Mountain Division line; if there were a train there, I'd ride it on a monthly basis. But I am one of perhaps 30 people in the entire state who would do so. Why is the Maine DOT even talking about building a train line to Steep Falls before we invest in rails to actual cities like Lewiston or Bangor? Why is this a higher priority than improving travel speeds and reliability on the Downeaster line between Portland and Boston?

Rounding out the list of Maine's TIGER applications are two projects that do a slightly better job of passing the sniff-test: a plan to revitalize three of Maine's ports with various capital projects, and a plan to rebuild the bridge between downtown Portsmouth, NH and Kittery, ME. Unfortunately, the former is tainted by its inclusion of a cruise ship "mega-berth" of questionable provenance, and the latter ought to have been paid for under the Maine DOT's regular maintenance schedule - it seems like a long-shot that Secretary Lahood will want to foot the bill for Augusta's negligence.

In total, Lahood has received $57 billion in requests. That means that 93% of funding hopefuls will go home empty-handed this week. To be sure, other states are also proposing potato-field bypasses and backwoods railways.

But other states are also proposing meaningful projects that will serve millions of people - and Maine missed that opportunity.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Veterans' Bridge Replacement Details

Here are some detailed plans of the new Veteran's Bridge, following up on my post from last week. I'll post more detailed thoughts later, but here's my quick take.

Things to like:

  • Valley Street near Barber Foods will get smaller, with only five turn lanes, as opposed to six. The extra space will go towards a wider, safer sidewalk on the west side of the street;
  • The Commercial St. crosswalk at Valley Street will get a new median to provide a refuge for crossing pedestrians;
  • Sidewalks on both sides of the new bridge over the railroad tracks, between Valley Street and the waterfront.

Things we should work on:

  • No sidewalk or crosswalk connection between the Fore River waterfront trail (which runs north from the bridge, towards Mercy Hospital) and the new bridge sidewalk (which is on the southern, opposite side of the bridge).
  • Likewise, no crosswalk between Barber Foods and the opposite side of Commercial Street. With so many pedestrians headed to work at Barber and other workplaces on St. John Street, this will be a probable jaywalking problem area unless a safe crossing gets built.
  • Still no word on where the sidewalk will go on the other (South Portland) side of the bridge. Another sidewalk to nowhere?

For the curious, a binder with engineering documents from the proposal is available at PACTS offices on the 4th floor of the AAA building on Marginal Way and Preble Street.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Budget crisis? Let's stop wasting space.

Our city, like most governments in America these days, is in the middle of a big budget shortfall. They're cutting school programs, raising bus fares, and laying off social workers. The city's main source of revenue is a 1.8% property tax, which is already high by Maine standards - the city can't raise it much further without sending more development and investment into the suburbs, and sending more homeowners into foreclosure.

On the face of it, it looks pretty hopeless. But in fact, City Hall has millions of dollars in costs that, out of pure neglect, it's been hiding off of its balance sheets. They're not in the schools, or in homeless shelters.

They're the opportunity costs of the city's acres of parking lots.

Here's an example - the East End School has a half-acre off-street lot on North Street. It's got gorgeous views of Back Cove and Casco Bay, it's across the street from the community gardens, it's a desirable neighborhood - and we're using this space only 15% of the time, for private vehicle storage during school days. This is self-evidently stupid, isn't it? And yet, there it is.

What if, instead, we made those few drivers park in the abundant on-street spaces on North Street and the Eastern Promenade (or walk, or take the bus), then sold this half-acre on the open market, no strings attached? Even in this economy, such a desirable location would fetch a lot of money - probably at least $400,000, which happens to be roughly 5% of the school system's budget shortfall this year.

And that's not all. If this half-acre of hilltop land goes to the private sector, it's all but certain that some developer will want to build something there. Most likely it would be homes, which is something our city needs more of. Let's assume they build 8 townhomes for $210,000 each. Then the city will collect 1.8% every year in property taxes - or about $30,000 in new revenue total. That's enough to cover the entire East End School's annual supplies budget.

And another thing: if we sell a pointless parking lot on the open market, the East End School will save a few thousand dollars every year in avoided pavement maintenance and plowing costs. It would become somebody else's problem, instead of the taxpayers'.

What do you think would make the teachers at the East End School happier? Having very convenient off-street parking, or having THEIR JOBS and A REASONABLE NUMBER OF STUDENTS IN THEIR CLASSES?

This is just one single parking lot. There's also Reiche School's 1/4 acre parking lot on Brackett Street in the West End, the 1/2 acre of parking at the corner of Stevens and Pleasant Ave (the very center of Deering Center), and the huge 6 acre front lawn of the PATHS school on Allen Avenue. All told, selling this land could recoup 1/3rd of the school budget cuts this year, and start generating new property taxes immediately for future years, and trim the school system's property maintenance costs.

And that's just the school system. Think about the Portland Housing Authority, which is hoarding acres of parking lots in the West End and East Bayside. Selling some of those lots into private ownership wouldn't just help the budget - it would also introduce a measure of stability and new housing opportunities into some of Portland's most depressed, rental-dominated neighborhoods.

But the biggest opportunity is the city's parking management itself. By charging below-market rates for parking on the city's streets and in its garages, the tiny little Parking office might rank as one of the most expensive in City Hall: it's hiding tens of millions of dollars from the city's balance sheets, from unaccounted parking subsidies to lost tax revenues. Our city's parking manager could have worked for Bernie Madoff.

So, I ask you again: what's more important? Solvent schools, a social safety net, and decent public services, funded by the development of new housing opportunities?

Or free parking?

METRO Fare Hikes Hearing Scheduled Next Thursday, After Buses Stop Running

The regional bus transit agency METRO is considering a $0.25 fare increase to cover serious budget shortfalls - even though ridership is increasing, operating funds from the city and state are diminishing. The new fares would be $1.50.

Personally, I think this is a reasonable price for transit, especially compared with other cities. However, METRO ought to use this opportunity to look hard at other cost-saving options. The biggest opportunity would come from streamlining the convoluted, impractical Route 8, which takes an entire hour to run a byzantine loop across the peninsula.

Streamlining Route 8, while supplementing it with better services for elderly and disabled riders, would let METRO increase its ridership and fare revenues, while also dramatically reducing its costs.

Anyhow, METRO will hold three hearings next week in Falmouth, Westbrook, and Portland.

The Portland public hearing on the fare increase begins at 7 pm next Thursday. Hilltop resident Bobbi Keppel pointed out on the Portland Bike/Ped Committee e-mail list that this is 20 minutes before the last Route 1 bus departs from downtown to the top of Munjoy Hill.

So METRO apparently doesn't want any transit-reliant East Enders to be there. But maybe you could pool your money and split a cab.