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

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Eliot Cutler on Roads, Transit, and Reducing Maine's Transportation Costs

Over lunch today I participated in the "live chat" on mainetoday.com with independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler. Here's the question I asked him:

Inflation of fuel costs and commute distances means that many Maine households are spending more on their cars than they do on their homes - it's a major threat to our cost of living, not to mention our public finances. Meanwhile, the state Dept. of Transportation seems incapable of building basic sidewalks in our downtown areas, much less improve transit services. How would you hold the DOT accountable to reduce its own costs and Mainers' transportation energy expenditures in general?
His response (you might pardon the typos, since this was a "live" chat, after all):
Boy, is that a good question. It all comes down to strong leadership. Thats how you insure success and change.

First of all, we need to do a good job everywhere in Maine of making sure that the "external" costs of development are borne in some fair measure by those undertaking the development. Sidewalks and other basic improvements need to be incorporated at the outset of projects, not added remedially at a later date, when it is much more expensive to do so.

Second, we need to address some of the hidden taxes that we impose right now on people who depend upon cars to get their kids to school or themselves to their jobs. (Yes, we need to build more compact communities, but we also need to deal with the hand that we've already dealt ourselves.) I already mentioned the vehicle inspection program that costs each of us a bunch of money each year without any measurable impact on safety. The sorry and deteriorating condition of our roads in Maine now imposes a hidden tax of $200-300 a year on every car owner in unnecessary maintenance costs per vehicle. We need to find the money to fix these problems and to remove these burdens on both Maine people and visitors to our state.

Third we need to look at transit solutions that will work in Maine today. My experience tells me that efficient and effective bus service (particularly with electric buses that reduce our use of liquid fossil fuels) will be our best bet.

Would love to explore these issues with you some time at greater length, Christian. Good question!
Overall, a fair response - kudos to Cutler for seemingly acknowledging that the state DOT is imposing big external costs on our communities by failing to plan or build complete projects from the get-go (see Exit 7 in Portland for a classic example) and for talking up buses, the inexpensive workhorses of our transit systems that don't typically get as much political attention as glitzy trains do. And kudos as well for acknowledging that the repair of existing roads and bridges should be a higher priority than planning or building new highways (particularly if we can't afford to maintain the roads we already have).

I'm a bit puzzled at the reference to vehicle inspections (I've heard him mention this before at another event). They might not add appreciably to safety, but they're also only $12.50 a year - pretty small potatoes in the context of the thousands of dollars a typical Maine household spends on cars every year. Getting rid of car inspections is not a sufficient transportation policy, not by a very long shot. But it's probably a populist talking point, so there you have it.

All in all, I'd grade it a solid "B" - he's an intelligent candidate, but he needs to work on bringing that intelligence to bear on this issue where Maine households and governments are bleeding hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Commute Another Way Week

It's lousy weather for walking or cycling around town today, but it's nevertheless "Commute Another Way Week" here in Maine and across the nation. Some inspiration:

Today's Press Herald op-ed page features a column from editor and adjunct professor Henry Garfield of Bangor, who enjoys thousands of dollars in additional disposable income every year thanks to his decision not to pay for and take care of an automobile. "Giving up my car brought two immediate and ongoing benefits. I lost 10 pounds, and have kept the weight off ever since by walking and bicycling; and I had more money left at the end of the month because it wasn't going to car payments, insurance, gas, and repairs."

And here's a blog post about how they get to work at the world's most innovative company. Over a thousand workers - including the billionaire founder and the Chief Financial Officer - rode their bikes to the campus last Thursday (how would you like a 55-mile bike ride across redwood-forested mountains to start your day?).

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Unelected Bureaucrats tell City Council: "Screw You, Augusta Knows Best"

Update: The League of Young Voters has sent out an action alert, asking members to call Governor Baldacci (287-3531) and hold his administration's highway planners accountable (a sample call script is below)

"Doesn't the Gov. want to promote energy independence? Blocking willing pedestrians with chain link fences and threatening their safety with unmarked street crossings next to the Park and Ride lot is not the way we would suggest promoting efficiency."

Last month, the Portland City Council passed a resolution calling for the Maine DOT to include basic pedestrian safety facilities when it widened Exit 7 at the junction of Franklin Street and Marginal Way. Exit 7, you may recall, is a long-planned trail connection between Bayside and Back Cove under I-296, the state-owned traffic sewer that monopolizes valuable waterfront real estate.

Traffic levels are still flat, and Augusta is still billions of dollars short of being able to do basic road repair for most of the state. But the Maine Department of Transportation is nevertheless STILL shoving forward a multi-million dollar freeway widening here. It recently released plans for construction, and intends to take bids from construction firms beginning on Wednesday.

Last month, the Portland City Council passed a resolution that this project would include basic sidewalks and crosswalks for pedestrians to negotiate their way between the busy Park and Ride Lot, the new developments on Marginal Way, and the Back Cove Trail. A trail connection between Marginal Way and Back Cove at this location has been called for in the City's Comprehensive Plan since 1990.

Also last month, Federal Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood declared "the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized."
"We are integrating the needs of bicyclists in federally-funded road projects. We are discouraging transportation investments that negatively affect cyclists and pedestrians. And we are encouraging investments that go beyond the minimum requirements and provide facilities for bicyclists and pedestrians of all ages and abilities. [source]
But Augusta's construction drawings conspicuously omit any pedestrian safety measures in defiance of local elected officials and these new federal policies (not to mention basic common sense).

The plans would only build a short, 8' wide sidewalk under the freeway overpasses themselves. This sidewalk wouldn't be connected to the Back Cove Trail or the Marginal Way sidewalk. Quite the opposite: MDOT is actually going to spend a few thousand taxpayer dollars on not one but two chain-link fences to prevent anyone from using the sidewalk (at least until volunteers from the neighborhood "repair" the fences themselves).

This sidewalk would not have any lighting. It would be a narrow, dark alley squeezed next to speeding freeway traffic. Remember, they're calling this a "safety improvement".

MDOT is also refusing to build any crosswalks between the Park and Ride lot and adjacent sidewalks on the other side of Franklin Street and Marginal Way.

The plans do allow for future crosswalks to be built, someday. But they are conspicuously labeled "BY OTHERS," meaning that the State of Maine is refusing to pay for them. Instead, local Portland taxpayers will have to pay the bill to clean up MDOT's mess.

I find it pretty incredible that a few unelected bureaucrats in Augusta feel entitled to defy local elected officials so brazenly. Is Portland's City Council really going to take this?

Update: The League of Young Voters has sent out an action alert: "Can you make some time today to put in a quick phone call to the Governor and let him know what his administration is up to? The office's number is 287-3531. "

Here's a sample call script, written by local activist Steve Scharf:

Hello my name is ________ and I am calling about MDOT's plans for the I-295 Exit 7 in Portland project. I am appalled that after the public and the City of Portland has made it clear that they want a fully functioning, well-lit, 10' wide trail connection with crosswalks, that the bid is going out with no crosswalks and two chain link fences to block access between Back Cove and Marginal Way.

Please pull this bid document back and add the requirements to make this a fully usable trail connection in the city of Portland.

Again my name is _______________________, my phone is ____________ and my email is ___________. Thank you for taking my concerns into consideration.