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

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Nice plan - now what?

Over the past few months, various town officials, planners, highway engineers, economic development professionals, and environmental group representatives have been hashing out a plan to deal with road congestion west of Portland, especially in the vicinity of South Gorham, where several major commuter routes, Routes 22, 114, and 112, converge on the 2-lane bottleneck at the center of this map:

View Larger Map

The Maine DOT's recent expenditure on the $28 million Gorham Bypass (shown above as Route 112 on the western edge of the map) turns out to have been a $28 million relocation of the traffic problem, away from Gorham Village to this area. Quite an expensive lesson in the futility of road building.

After the new road opened and failed to make miracles happen, the Maine DOT and the Maine Turnpork Authority committed an additional $1 million to a planning exercise to try to relieve congestion in this area, for real this time. The Gorham East-West Corridor Study group has been meeting since April 2009, and while many of the players involved probably came into the process ready to draw new bypass roads on the map, the Study's consultants have (mercifully) guided the process in a more comprehensive, and constructive, direction.

After 18 months of meetings, the players have come to some encouraging conclusions: first, that roads won't solve all their problems (and that we wouldn't be able to afford any even if they could); and second, that smarter land use patterns and more transit services need to come before new roads. This latter point is a remarkable departure from previous studies, like the Maine DOT's I-295 Corridor Study, which treated transit as an afterthought and are therefore already irrelevant.

The Gorham East-West study began with an analysis of existing patterns of growth in Greater Portland. Under historical development trends, the suburbs west of Portland would soon become an unlivable tangle of cul-de-sacs where commuters waste hours stuck in traffic, forests and farms disappear under developments, and nothing is within walking distance. The study's participants rejected that scenario for an "urban and rural" growth pattern, which would focus most new jobs and housing in village areas, thus making it possible for people to drive less, and create transit-friendly communities. With changes in zoning laws alone, the study found, many of the congestion problems in Scarborough and Gorham would improve, even without any new roads or transit services.

With input from municipal officials, developers, and planners, the study is proposing that the first step to managing congestion should be focusing new growth in these specific areas:

But in the mathematical models the study is using, this scenario - focusing growth in specific areas - would still leave a lot of people, including riders on new bus routes - stuck in traffic every day. So the next step was to look at transit services - both existing ones:

...and new transit routes that the region hopes to implement by 2035. The red dots in the map below indicate ridership projections, under the land use assumptions mentioned above - namely, that town centers in South Windham, Gorham, Standish, and elsewhere will have added thousands of new housing units and jobs by 2035.

The study assumed that major bus routes would run every 10 minutes, making schedules unnecessary, plus trains (in orange) running every 30 minutes on three routes radiating north, west, and south of Portland. You'll also see new local bus routes (in yellow) close in and going out all the way to Standish and Buxton, and new express buses (in green) running between Portland and downtown Gorham, North Windham, and Scarborough. The red dots indicate the number of rush-hour riders each those routes could expect in 2035.

According to the study's model, this level of transit service would save commuters from wasting 3,400 hours stuck in traffic in a single evening rush hour. If the average worker's time is worth $15/hour, that's roughly $100,000 saved every day - to say nothing of savings in fuel use, or parking costs.

It's important to note that the precise transit routes and service types aren't being determined in this study - it's simply making the point that these areas would need a similar level of transit investment to meet their goals.

Once the study's participants had thoroughly examined the possibilities of better land use and transit, they turned to new roads to address the few locations that would still get stuck in stop-and-go traffic even with better transit and land use patterns. Those locations were clustered around the South Gorham/Scarborough neighborhood shown in the map above - the bottleneck of Routes 114 and 22.

They looked at two scenarios: one short bypass coupled with spot improvements to existing roads:

...and a more ambitious "ring road" between the Turnpike and the new Gorham Bypass road:

Note that both scenarios would include new freight rail service along the Mountain Division line between Portland and Fryeburg, plus new local streets in Standish Village.

To the surprise of some, even these new roads would not solve all of the region's problems - there would still be areas of congestion. But, if all three strategies are employed together - land use, transit, and focused new roads - the region's future looks better than it otherwise would be.

Here are the modeled "vehicle miles travelled" under each scenario. Note that the new roads - especially the more ambitious ring road under scenario 2 - do indeed encourage people to drive more.

... but the new roads wouldn't appreciably affect the regional share of trips made by sustainable modes of travel - walking, biking, transit, and shared rides.

All in all, I think that a small investment in new roads - I'd personally prefer the more modest "scenario 1," which will cost less and induce less additional traffic - would be more than worth it if building them forces these suburban communities to grow in more sensible, sustainable patterns and invest in transit.

And the beauty of this plan is that it makes a tight case that new roads should not be built without first undertaking new "smart growth" measures to focus growth into village centers, and building new transit lines. Transportation advocates now have an even stronger case to make to re-allocate funds that the Maine DOT and the Turnpike Authority had planned to use on wider roads, and use them for better transit instead in the short term (and it helps that the argument comes from a study that was actually funded, at considerable expense, by those anti-transit agencies).

But the study's approach also has a major pitfall. If the region needs smarter growth, AND a big expansion in transit services, AND a handful of new roadway and freight rail projects, AND for all these things to happen more or less simultaneously, then how is that going to happen? How do you coordinate four to seven different municipal governments (South Portland, Scarborough, Westbrook, Gorham, plus the outer suburbs of Standish, Buxton, and Hollis) so that they agree to focus their growth in specific areas and provide local funds for better transit services? How is the region going to pay for $80-$100 million worth of road improvements, plus $40-$50 million for new buses and rail line upgrades? And how's all of this going to happen in a coordinated fashion?

I think that the region is going to need a relatively strong new finance and oversight authority, possibly funded through new tolls, to ensure that the municipalities stick with the plan. Funding for transportation improvements should only happen if the entire region can be assured that its investment won't be ruined by sprawl commuters from a renegade suburb that refuses to focus its growth. And this finance authority should also be structured such that it focuses its investments on better transit service, before it starts building roads.

Will suburban politicians agree to turn over a measure of their autonomy to what would effectively be a new regional government? That seems like a big "if." But the alternative - wasting thousands of hours every day in stop-and-go traffic - is almost certainly less appealing to the residents of those towns. The question is whether suburban town managers and officials can swallow their "local control" pride and lust for new roads in favor of a smarter, more sustainable regional solution.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Greater Portland wins $1.6 million to plan to become a "transit-focused" region

The Department of Housing and Urban Development today announced the winners of the first round of winners in the new "Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grants" program. The Greater Portland Council of Governments won $1.6 million to execute its proposal, which is looking at ways for us to become a "transit-focused" region.

I've only heard second-hand about the grant application and proposal, but I'm hoping to learn more soon. Here are the guidelines, in HUD's words:
"HUD’s inaugural grants under this program will support metropolitan and multi-jurisdictional planning efforts that incorporate housing, land use, economic development, transportation and infrastructure. This holistic planning approach will benefit diverse areas across the U.S. including $25.6 million split evenly between regions with populations less than 500,000 and rural places (fewer than 200,000 people). HUD is reserving $2 million to help all of these areas build the needed capacity to execute their plans."

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

TONIGHT: Portland Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee at City Hall

October's monthly bicycle and pedestrian advisory committee meeting has been rescheduled to Wednesday this week, due to the holiday on Monday. We'll meet at 5:30 pm, in Room 24 (in the basement level at the eastern end of the building) of Portland's City Hall.

At our last meeting, members voted to choose 4 top priorities we'd like to advance through the local and regional planning process over the next two years. Those priorities are:
  • Reconfiguring the Exit 6/Forest Avenue interchange to make it more pedestrian and cycle-friendly. The current cloverleaf interchange swallows up over 6 acres of valuable real estate and clumsily cuts off access from major pedestrian destinations like the USM campus, Deering Oaks Park, Bayside, and the Hannaford grocery store. It is a high-crash location for automobiles. It's dangerous for everyone and a waste of space, and it's time we made plans to fix it.

  • Bike Boulevard pilot project. Bike boulevards are low-traffic neighborhood streets that include traffic calming elements and other features to make them extra-convenient routes for bikes and pedestrians. We'd like to establish a pilot Bike Boulevard somewhere in Portland, and have it serve as a model for other routes connecting throughout the region.

  • Bayside Trail/Preble/Elm area of Bayside: Even though this neighborhood has seen increasing amounts of investment and new development, the streets are still relics of the days when this neighborhood was an industrial backwater. There are large gaps in the sidewalk network, one-way streets that are wider and faster than they need to be, and numerous blockages to handicap accessibility. Future development offers the opportunity for the city to make the neighborhood's streets much better.

  • "Bikes May Use Full Lane" signs. Many of Portland's larger streets, like Congress Street and inner Washington Avenue, don't have enough space for bike lanes, but they're still important connecting routes for bike commuters. New signs would educate motorists and cyclists alike that bicycles are allowed to use the full lane, instead of squeezing themselves into the gutter.
Do any of these ideas sound appealing to you? At this month's meeting, we'll discuss our strategy and convene small working groups of people who are ready and able to seize these ideas, move them through city and state approval and funding processes, and make them a reality.

Join us TONIGHT at 5:30 pm, in Room 24 (in the basement level at the eastern end of the building) of Portland's City Hall.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Maine Turnpork Authority Broadcasts Its Anti-Transit Outlook

The Maine Turnpork Authority offered up a wonky and unconvincing rebuttal to the Maine Alliance for Sustainable Transportation's regional bus expansion proposal. It's too bad it was published on the Monday of a long weekend, when few people would actually read it, because it does a great job of showing where the MTA's priorities lie.

Author Scott Tomkins, a flack on the Maine Turnpike Authority payroll, makes it clear that his employer has no interest in expanding bus service or reducing Maine's dependence on fossil fuels. To support his regressive and self-serving point of view, Tomkins cites some dubious statistics, like "a 21 percent decline in Zoom ridership from FY 2009 to FY 2010." Ridership did decline last year, but that was mostly because of rising unemployment, which reduced the number of commuters moving between Biddeford/Saco and downtown Portland. In the previous five years, though, ridership on the Zoom had nearly doubled, from 25,000 daily riders in 2005 to 46,000 riders last year, before dipping to 37,000 riders last year.

To take a more useful and honest statistic, the average annual growth rate over the past five years - even when you include last year's dip - has been 11%. That's double-digit growth for the bus. Meanwhile, the growth in vehicle traffic on the Turnpike during the same period has been statistically insignificant - zero, in other words.

Anyway, citing a decline in employment as your reason you're not going to invest in bus service makes it sound like the Tomkins wants our region to fail.

There's also this nugget:
Assuming the same 0.8 percent market penetration as Biddeford/Saco, these two corridors would yield a total of just 66 new bus riders for the additional $7 million MAST proposes to legislatively force the MTA to invest in Zoom.
The current Zoom service does have pathetic market penetration, and that's because the Maine Turnpork Authority is in charge. Other bus systems - ones that have the support of the agencies that fund them - manage to achieve a 5% market share, and as we lay out in our business plan, there's no reason Zoom can't do the same, to more than triple its total ridership.

Unfortunately, the MTA has chronically under-invested in their bus service - it's almost as though they want it to fail. Bus riders don't pay the tolls that funds the Turnpork Authority's bloated payroll, after all...

But that's beside the larger point. Even with a 5% market share, the MTA would still need to provide $2.4 million a year to fund the service. But let's put that number in context: that's roughly as much as the agency would pay in annual interest for its new $40 million tollbooth.

Unlike the tollbooth, though, the bus service would actually provide tangible financial benefits to Maine's economy, saving commuters millions of dollars in congestion and gasoline costs, saving municipalities additional millions in avoided parking subsidies and road maintenance expenses.

Tomkins uses his dubious math to conclude that the bus would require "a jaw-dropping $29,756 per-rider subsidy" on the MTA's balance sheet. But that balance sheet doesn't include parking subsidies, or congestion costs, or health care impacts from air pollution and obesity, or gasoline expenditures.

Bus service is only expensive if you look at it through from the point of view of the Turnpork Authority's fantasy-land - a place where parking is always free, gasoline flows like water, car exhaust smells like roses, and no one ever dies of congestive heart failure from too many drive-thru meals.

In the real world, the existing Zoom service - even in its paltry state, with only 2 buses and 10 round trips a day - saves commuters, businesses, and municipalities in Cumberland and York Counties about $1.8 million a year - and that's after you subtract the actual cost of the bus service.

Our proposal aims to double that savings - pumping an additional $2.2 million into the local economy every year.

Here's the math, from our Turnpike for the 21st Century report. Scott Tompkins, you're welcome to try to challenge these numbers, the real costs that Mainers are struggling to pay to drive on your highway...

Round-trip costs between Biddeford and downtown PortlandSingle-occupant vehicle on Maine TurnpikeZOOM busProposed Downtown ZOOM routeNotes

Tolls and Fares$2.00$5.00$5.00
Gasoline plus maintenance and insurance$22.00$1.10$0.00(at Federal rate of $0.55 per mile, assuming a 1.5 mile drive to Biddeford P&R for ZOOM trip)
Public parking in Portland ($5/day)$5.00$0.00$0.00
Loss of productive time$20.00$3.33$0.00(Turnpike column assumes a 30-minute one-way trip, without congestion delays, at a rate of $20/hour; ZOOM column assume a 5-minute one-way trip to Park and Ride lot)
Total costs to individual:$49.00$9.43$5.00


Operating subsidy$0.00$15.00$15.00Fares cover roughly 25% of ZOOM service costs. Does not include federal tax subsidies for automobile ownership and oil.
Congestion externality$10.80$0.54$0.81Peak-hour congestion costs on urban LOS E streets and highways is $0.27/mile (TTI 2003 and Littman 2010). ZOOM congestion cost based on an assumed 20 passengers per vehicle, and increased by a factor of 1.5 to account for more frequent stops.
Parking subsidies$15.00$10.00$0.00Difference between nominal parking rents and market-rate prices for similar real estate in downtown Portland. See Peninsula Transit Study, 2008. ZOOM column reflects subsidies for Biddeford Park and Ride lot, where land values are lower.
Noise, water, and air pollution costs$3.00$0.30$0.45Average automobile pollution cost per mile is $0.075; the average new diesel bus pollution cost per mile is $0.15. Second and third columns assume an average 20 passengers per bus (Sierra Research 2000, Littman 2010).
Total exported costs:$28.80$25.84$16.26

Sum of all costs (individual plus social):$77.80$35.27$21.26

Total annual costs of 180 commuters (average daily ridership on existing ZOOM route)$3,360,960$1,523,664
Based on 2009 ridership and 240 annual work days

Total costs of 294 commuters (projected daily ridership on proposed ZOOM route)$5,489,568
$1,500,106Based on a projection of 294 daily riders on the proposed downtown ZOOM route (assuming a conservative 5% market share among workers whose origin and destination are within 1/2 a mile of the route) and 240 annual work days



Sierra Research COMMUTER Model, US Environmental Protection Agency Transportation Air Quality Center, 2000.

Evaluating Public Transit Benefits and Costs, by Todd Littman. Victoria Transportation Policy Institute, 2010.

Urban Mobility Study, Texas Transportation Institute, 2009.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

"Peloton Labs" are under construction

The "coworking space" on Bramhall Square, which I'd blogged about a few months ago, is now under construction and seeking tenants. They're calling the place Peloton Labs.

Their new website is also soliciting ideas and suggestions from potential tenants - so sign on now to have a say in how the building gets built.

Also interesting: Neil Takemoto, author of the CoolTown Studios blog, seems to be involved as well - at least, he's posting things on the website. Neil was in town early this spring to participate in the East Bayside neighborhood design intensive. His blog is quite influential among creative economy wonks, so it's a good thing for Portland to have him involved in more projects here.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Portland 101

Last week I participated in the first "Portland 101" program that the local League of Young Voters is sponsoring. This is a series of after-work sessions that give a small group of Portland citizens a look into how various government agencies and departments actually work, and we kicked it off with a one-hour conversation with City Manager Joe Gray at Portland City Hall.

Gray spent most of the time going over the city's budget, and how it gets crafted - a project that seems to occupy most of his time. Writing the budget proposal and guiding it through City Council approval gives Gray a great deal of influence - even in these cash-strapped times, Gray leads the discussion of what gets cut, what should be kept, and which taxes to raise.

But here's the interesting thing: because of the nature and structure of city government, and a high reliance on state and federal funds, Joe Gray and the City Council only have direct control over a relatively minor portion of Portland's municipal services. Those include the police and fire departments, City Hall staff (like the Clerk's office and the Planning Department), a capital improvements budget, and the Barron Center, a city-owned and managed nursing home.

Other parts of our local city services are either financially self-sufficient - the city's golf course and the airport, for instance - or outside of the City's control altogether. The city's garbage disposal, for instance, is controlled by ecomaine, a nonprofit company that's owned by 21 different towns and cities in the region. Even though Portland has a seat at the table on ecomaine's board of directors, and pays a small portion of ecomaine's budget, it only has a tenuous say in ecomaine's management. This is probably a good thing: my impression is that ecomaine is very well-managed, and that the city gets a good deal for sharing the expense and work of garbage disposal with 20 other towns and cities.

Similarly, Portland's city water, schools, public housing, and ferry services are also run by separate, quasi-independent public organizations and boards. The City Council doesn't have direct control over any of these - for instance, it can't tell the schools to hire or fire employees without going through the elected school committee. But most of these agencies still need financial support from City Hall after they've collected all the revenue they can from federal, state, and private sources, and because the City Council effectively signs those checks, they still get some say in how the money gets spent.

So how does Portland's structure of government affect the city's built environment - the buildings, streets, and public spaces to which this blog is devoted to chronicling? By my sights, these are the public organizations and departments that impact the city's built environment the most:

  • The Portland Housing Authority, which manages hundreds of units of public housing in large complexes that dominate their neighborhoods across the city;
  • The Greater Portland Transit District, or METRO, which operates the city's bus system;
  • John Peverada, the bureaucrat in charge of Portland's parking meters and public garages;
  • and I've saved the biggest for last: the Planning Department, and the city's land use regulations.
Portland's structure of government, and more specifically, the responsibilities and accountability of Gray's city manager position, have recently been the topic of some discussion in the city's charter review. Over the next two weeks or so, I plan to write here in more depth about Portland's city government, how it relates to the four agencies and departments I've bulleted above, and how we might go about improving how they work, in order to improve the quality of our city as it grows in the future. Stay tuned...

Monday, October 4, 2010

Double Whammy for the Maine Turnpork Authority

Read the op-ed pages of today's Portland Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News for more reasons why we'll be working in the State House this winter to get the Maine Turnpork Authority to share some of its toll revenues on better transit services for the entire state.