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

Monday, March 28, 2011

Bike Swap!

Spring must be coming, because the Bike Coalition of Maine is hosting its annual bike swaps once again:

Great Maine Bike Swap – Portland
April 10, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. (Drop bikes off between 8 and 9:30 a.m.)
University of Southern Maine’s Sullivan Gymnasium

Great Maine Bike Swap – Orono
May 1, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. (Drop bikes off between 8 and 9:30 a.m.)
UMaine Student Recreation and Fitness Center, Orono

All the details are on the BCM webpage. They also need some volunteers to help set up and manage the crowds - if you're willing, visit the webpage for the details.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Regional Commuter Buses Could Come Next Year - If Transit Advocates Speak Up on Tuesday

LD 673, An Act To Expand Fiscally Responsible Transportation through Increased ZOOM Bus Service, is a bill that would establish new express commuter bus services to serve downtown areas along the Maine Turnpike corridor - an important step towards building more sustainable communities, reducing transportation costs for governments and households alike, and reducing Maine's reliance on oil.

This bill would, for the first time, shift the Maine Turnpike Authority's spending away from expensive highway widenings, and towards cost-effective transit - saving Maine millions of dollars in tolls and gasoline costs every year.

I've been working on this bill with the Maine Alliance for Sustainable Transportation for several months now. I'm very pleased to say that its chances look good: we have enlightened new management at the Turnpike Authority in Peter Mills, and a long list of sponsors from both political parties.

Still, many of the staff of the old "Turnpork Authority" still have their jobs and still want to keep Maine dependent on oil and pavement. They're still spending lots of money on lobbyists to maintain the status quo as much as possible.

LD 673 has a public hearing tomorrow in the State House, in Augusta. We want to pack the room with transit supporters. You should come.

We'll be arranging carpools - RSVP on Facebook if you'd like a ride from Portland or Lewiston. Come tell our lawmakers that Maine needs this bill to pass this year!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Can Buses Spur Economic Development?

A recent article in Streetsblog pointed out that Brooklyn's Fulton Street mall, open only to buses and pedestrians, is the most successful retail strip in the city outside of Manhattan.
There's no doubt about it. Buses do spur economic development, by bringing more people into street-level retail spaces, by giving landlords and tenants a much more affordable alternative to building and maintaining huge parking garages, and by saving money for local governments (which spend less on transportation infrastructure) and commuters (who spend less money on gas and cars).

An anonymous comment in the last post asserted (rather scornfully) that only trains can spur transit-oriented development. That's just not true. In Portland, we've seen much more new development happen along the Congress Street corridor between Maine Medical Center and Washington Avenue - a street where buses run every five to ten minutes during workdays - than we've seen in the neighborhood around the train station in Libbytown. Bus service deserves some credit for this new development along Congress Street for reducing employers' parking requirements and their commuters' expenses.

In fact, City of Portland zoning codes explicitly reduce parking requirements if the development is within walking distance of bus routes. And the builders of the recent expansion at Maine Medical Center cited the availability of bus service and its high rate of bus commuters among employees as a reason to build more space downtown than the hospital otherwise would have.

Unfortunately, the economics of intercity rail in Maine require large parking lots for drive-in passengers to access stations that are miles apart from each other. But the economics of local and intercity express buses like the Metro and ZOOM buses require dense, vibrant employment centers and residential neighborhoods where passengers can walk to bus stops that are within a few blocks of each other in downtown neighborhoods. That's the kind of transit-oriented development we need more of.

There's no doubt that a handful of people don't like riding buses, and Anonymous seems like s/he is probably one of them. But for many of us, any option is better than no option. For the vast majority of people - including the thousands of households in our cities who don't own cars - the idea of waiting a decade or more for Amtrak to expand to Auburn with only three trips a day is not that exciting when an intercity bus route could start up within months, serve more destinations, and offer dozens of trips a day, for a much lower price.

Before I get more angry notes from railfans, let me make it known that I absolutely want to see Amtrak expand to Lewiston/Auburn. But it won't happen soon and it will take even longer unless those cities really begin to lay the groundwork of becoming a transit-oriented community. I'll reiterate the points I made yesterday: those cities need to stop throwing away their money away on temples to free-parking socialism. And they need to invite smarter forms of downtown development, by bringing commuters in on buses until they can afford to bring even more people in by rail.

At the end of the day, "sustainable transportation" also needs to be financially sustainable, and transit advocates need to be practical. Connecting two of Maine's largest urban centers by passenger rail does make sense, but building it will be very, very expensive, and it will be at least ten years before our small, aging, and poor state is able to afford it.

In the meantime, though, buses can deliver a similar outcome - the efficient movement of thousands of people - for a fraction of the cost. Rail advocates might be threatened by the idea that buses could become too successful, and make people forget about buying an expensive new train. But that's no reason to sabotage an important new transit connection between Portland and Lewiston.

PS: You don't have to take my word for it - here are a few more examples of places where buses - not trains - have cultivated successful transit-oriented development:
  • Almere (The Netherlands): "North Americans try hard to do 'transit-oriented development,' (TOD) but the Dutch are doing it on a massive scale. Even more heretically, they do it with buses! All of Almere is transit-oriented, and the transit is all in the form of busways," writes transit planning consultant Jarrett Walker.
  • Pittsburgh: "Faced with a long, slender five-acre parcel of land between Centre Avenue and the East Busway, the project needed to encourage tenants to come to the neighborhood without turning it into a suburbanized desert of parking," from a review of a new bus-oriented retail development in the Pittsburgh City Paper.
  • Bogota, Colombia: "Analysis across time reflects slight average annual increases in property values correlated with the implementation of the [Transmileno Bus Rapid Transit] system."

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Train Enthusiasm Meets Fiscal Realities

As reported in a story in today's Lewiston Sun-Journal, the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments is wrapping up a feasibility study for extending Amtrak service to the edge of Auburn - and potentially on through western Maine to Montreal. Here's a link to the public presentation the study team made the other night.

This has been a long-awaited study for rail advocates. But the news it delivered wasn't especially good for rail fans. I'll let the Sun-Journal's lede sum it up:
Establishing regular rail service between Auburn and Portland in 2020 could cost up to $234 million to start and could require an $8 million annual subsidy, according to a new study presented Wednesday night.
That figure is expressed in 2020 dollars - which, adjusted for inflation, amount to roughly $180 million in startup costs and a $6.1 million annual operating budget in today's dollars (assuming an average annual inflation rate of 3%). Putting the costs in 2011 dollars makes for easier comparisons to other Amtrak projects, like the expansion to Brunswick (which cost about $35 million). But by expressing the costs in future terms, the study's authors are already acknowledging that the money (in 2011 dollars) doesn't exist to make this happen.

There's more discouraging news: the extension to Auburn would be contingent on improving the existing Portland-to-Boston line for faster trains and one more daily round trip (for seven in all). Those are worthwhile projects, but they'll also be expensive - between $120 and $150 million.* This project alone will take several years to fund and build - I'll be pleasantly surprised if it happens by 2020.

Plus, the proposed train wouldn't even stop in downtown Lewiston/Auburn, within walking distance of thousands of jobs. Instead, it would stop on the industrial outskirts of town, in between a little-used airport and a complex of industrial warehouses. Passengers bound for L/A would need to take a bus shuttle to get anywhere.

Then there's the hard fiscal realities we're dealing with: the state is broke, and even if an increasingly tight-fisted Washington scares up more money for passenger rail, I would doubt that a project to connect two small cities in Maine with a 60 MPH train is going to rise to the top of national priorities.

So what's a transit advocate to do? Two things.

  1. Don't rely on Washington or Augusta - local funding will be crucial to bringing Amtrak to L/A, and these cities could afford it, if they only started spending less money on parking garages and highway interchanges. Lewiston, in particular, has gone on a parking building binge in the past decade, spending tens of millions of dollars in local tax dollars to subsidize car travel. Auburn's about to build an expensive white elephant parking garage of their own. And both cities are pursuing big-ticket roadway expansions.

    The costs of all these automotive subsidies rival the costs of the proposed Amtrak expansion. Not only is this diverting money from transit improvements; it's also undermining the demand for transit down the road, by filling up downtown real estate with acres of car-storage units instead of with transit-oriented housing and workplaces.

  2. But you can't have new housing and workplaces unless you're able to bring more people into downtown L/A, so start cultivating transit-oriented development now with a low-cost intercity bus service between Portland, L/A, and Augusta. That will bring new workers, businesses, and households into L/A's affordable downtown districts, raise property values, encourage new investment, and create a stronger customer base for when the cities are finally ready to invest in rail.
And as a matter of fact, the L/A Amtrak study concluded with a recommendation that an express bus should run between downtown Lewiston and downtown Portland as an interim measure. Sounds like a great idea to me.

*"Expensive" is relative, of course. The Maine Turnpork Authority had been planning to spend the same amount of money just to widen 9 miles of highway inside Portland's city limits. If Maine does in fact have that kind of money to throw around, the Downeaster is obviously a better place to invest it.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Daily Paper Double

Today's Portland Press Herald editorial page goes to bat twice in favor of transportation policy reform:

Portland is one of the rare urban centers where people can get around almost as well without a car as with one...

But that doesn't mean that the city has it all worked out. There are gaps in the system, where sidewalks and bike lanes suddenly disappear, leaving pedestrians and cyclists dangerously exposed. There are also gaps in the behavior of people, both on the street and behind the wheel, who break the rules of the road, creating unnecessary danger...

Everyone in the city has an interest in making this work. Walkers and cyclists reduce congestion, demand for parking and air pollution. Good facilities help people save money and promote healthy living.

But as gas prices climb, more people will leave their cars at home, so it's important to fill these gaps now.
This is in reference to Portland's new Complete Streets resolution, which the City Council passed earlier this week. Under guidance from Bruce Hyman, our Bicycle and Pedestrian coordinator, the city is set to get to work to create an official Complete Streets policy, which will ensure that bikes and pedestrians are accommodated and made welcome in all of the City's future construction projects. This is a big deal, and I'll be writing more about this soon.

The second editorial deals with the disgraced Maine Turnpork Authority:

The resignation of longtime Maine Turnpike Authority Executive Director Paul Violette has led to some fast-paced scrambling by the agency's board of directors...

In the end, public anger and calls for legislative action were not just about gift cards, but about what those expenditures represent, which is a political organization that has been allowed to exist outside the checks and balances of government.

Violette used to refer to his organization as a business, which it resembled when it borrowed money on Wall Street to finance projects. But at the same time, the Maine Turnpike provides an essential public service and manages a resource, in the form of tolls collected from tourists and trucking companies, in which the entire state has an interest.

Reshuffling the responsibilities of a board that meets one day a month for less than two hours at a time is not enough oversight for an organization that collects $99 million in toll revenue each year.

The fact that its revenue does not come directly from the taxpayers does not make the Maine Turnpike a private business. If the board has been lax in its oversight of staff expenditures, the same can be said of past Legislatures, which have not adequately asserted their duty to raise questions about how the MTA is run and how it fits with other state priorities.

Republican lawmakers have called for a top-to-bottom review of the MTA and raised fundamental questions about the management structure of the Maine Turnpike Authority and its recent inability to turn over any operating surplus to the state to defray other transportation costs.

The MTA board's scrambling is understandable and probably overdue. But it is not a substitute for a serious legislative inquiry.

The Maine Alliance for Sustainable Transportation (of which I'm a part) is working on promising legislation that would address a number of these issues, by requiring the Turnpike Authority to provide a regional commuter bus system and to help fund basic road maintenance and repair throughout the rest of the state, before it takes on any of its more expensive widening projects.

It's called LD 673, "An Act To Expand Fiscally Responsible Transportation through Increased ZOOM Bus Service," and here's how you can help get it passed. More on this, too, in a future blog post.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Nonstop bus service from Portland to New York City?

At the beginning of this month, New Hampshire's C&J Trailways started offering direct service from Durham and Portsmouth to midtown Manhattan in a five-hour daily trip. The buses will be equipped with extra legroom, and travelers will shave 30 minutes off their trip by not having to transfer buses in downtown Boston, as was previously required for a bus trip to New York.

Since this is a trip my wife and I make on a fairly regular basis, I naturally wanted to know whether Concord Coach was thinking about doing something similar from Portland, Maine. Their official reply: "At this time we are carefully monitoring the demand and evaluating our options."

Sounds good to me!

But on a closer look, would Concord Coach be able to compete with current options? The C&J service only runs once a day (twice on Fridays), early in the morning, whereas the Concord Coach/Chinatown connection offers buses nearly every hour, with only a short layover in South Station. The nonstop option is only convenient if you're planning an early morning departure from New Hampshire and an afternoon return trip from New York.

Plus, there's the price. A one-way trip from Portland to Boston plus a Chinatown bus from Portland to the Lower East Side currently costs $33: $18 to Concord Coach, and $15 to the Chinatown operators. C&J's $75 fare comes a long, long way from beating that price. Even JetBlue flights from Portland to New York are frequently cheaper than C&J's price - people in Portsmouth could drive out of their way to the Portland airport to make the same trip faster and at a lower price.

But airports are a hassle, and so is arriving at JFK, in the outskirts of Queens. If Concord Coach can set a competitive price, I'd be willing to pay close to airline rates for a convenient, comfortable bus that drops me off in Manhattan with my bike. I hope they can make it happen.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Maine's Turnpork Authority bids adieu

Image and caption from Mainebiz.

Maine's Republican party announced over the weekend that Paul Violette, the buck-stops-here Authority in charge of Maine's Turnpork highway spending, has cleaned out his desk and resigned:
Word is coming out of the State House today that Paul Violette will step down next week. Violette was grilled recently by the OPEGA committee about his seemingly indiscriminate distribution of over $150,000 in gift certificates, including over $100,000 in gift cards to luxury hotel chains. Violette claimed he had no record of who the gift cards went to, and claimed that the use of turnpike funds for luxury gifts was an acceptable practice.

"Maine Republicans have been trying to get to the bottom of this kind of nonsense for years," said Maine GOP Chair Charlie Webster. "Now that we're in control of state government, we're finally seeing some results. We can't rebuild our economy without weeding out the cronyism and waste that has become pervasive throughout state government. Quite simply, we need to drain the swamp in Augusta.
This is good news. Regime change is just what we needed to turn the Maine Turnpork Authority into something more respectable - an agency that takes responsibility for moving Maine's people and goods efficiently and cost-effectively, instead of lining its own pockets.

There's still a lot of bureaucratic inertia and cronyism from the old regime. But there's also a clear mandate to do things better, and the remaining staff deserve a chance to live up to our higher expectations.

Kudos to the Republicans who kept the pressure on. Now that we've cleaned out the rot, it's time to work on productive solutions, including new transit services.