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

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The way ahead for freeways isn't free

Traffic jams are the Soviet breadlines of our day: too many drivers paying too low a price to use our roads and highways in the twilight days of Socialized Motoring.

The alternative - congestion pricing - has the support of transportation advocates on the left (as a way to reduce air pollution and finance transit) and on the right (as a way to introduce market prices for a scarce public resource). The idea's even making its way into the smoggy Kremlin of the freeway empire, where the Bush administration is encouraging the transit agency to get more revenue from rush-hour drivers:

"To reduce traffic congestion, the Los Angeles area needs to experiment with charging motorists to drive in special freeway lanes during peak periods, a Bush administration official told the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board Thursday."

-From the LA Times. Full story here.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Portland Green Streets

It's the last Friday of the month, which now means that it's Green Streets day.

If you walked, biked, carpooled, or rode the bus to work today, you've earned yourself discounts at Portland coffee shops and a chance to win fabulous prizes. Just take the survey to enter the raffle and proclaim your commitment to green, humane transportation.

Green Streets is a new project (the inaugural "green streets" day was one month ago, on the last Friday of September) being run by East Ender Sarah Cushman. Check out their new website here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

ACTION ALERT: Nix Freeways, Support Transit: Write to PACTS Today

As discussed previously, the regional transportation planning agency PACTS is putting together a list of funding priorities for 2009. Currently, freeway projects dominate the list, but because these projects will be going to the federal government for funding earmarks, the Committee in charge of the list will need to make sure that the projects they recommend won't attract public opposition.

In other words, we need to howl bloody murder against new highways and demand some investment in new transit routes and systems for once.

This is not a process that typically attracts a lot of public input, so if we're able to get a few dozen letters and e-mails to PACTS, we can rearrange these priorities and help the dipshit traffic engineers who drafted it adjust to the 21st century. The contact information is below, after the talking points.

PLEASE WRITE A LETTER, and encourage your friends and neighbors to do likewise (feel free to forward this message far and wide). Here are some talking points, but you should include your own stories about why these projects are important to you personally. Click this link to see the proposed list of projects in its current form.

  • The Veteran's Bridge replacement, currently the number 1 priority, must include a separated bike/pedestrian path with connections to bike routes on Danforth St., the Fore River Parkway path, the Clarks Pond trail network, and the Redbank/Brickhill neighborhoods.

  • I-295 expansion projects should be removed from the list. The freeway is a barely-tolerated bad neighbor in its current form, and any attempts to expand the freeway through downtown Portland and Falmouth will be met with intense resistance, including legal challenges under Maine ’s Sensible Transportation Policy Act and the federal National Environmental Policy Act.

  • However, redesigning and rebuilding I-295’s inefficient and outdated cloverleaf ramps into a more urban, diamond interchange design is a worthy project that could enhance traffic flow for motor vehicles while also improving bicycle and pedestrian passages, opening up lucrative redevelopment opportunities, and mitigating the blighting effects of some of central Portland ’s ugliest places.

  • Replacing the region’s transit fleet is a priority that needs to maintain its high position on this list.

  • Development of passenger rail or some other sort of passenger transit service to Brunswick should take the third position in this list of priorities.

  • Passenger rail or other forms of transit should supersede I-295 expansion projects as a more cost-effective, flexible, and environmentally benign solution to rush-hour and weekend congestion in this corridor.

  • The second phase of the Gorham Bypass should not go forward until regular passenger and commuter bus service between Gorham village, the Mall area, and downtown Portland is established, as stipulated in the Environmental Assessment for the project. As bus service is several times more cost-effective than a new highway, this will be another golden opportunity for citizen activists to mount a challenge under NEPA and the Sensible Transportation Policy Act.

  • By 2009, gas prices are likely to exceed $4 per gallon, stricter ozone regulations may put southern Maine out of compliance with the Clean Air Act, and a cap-and-trade program on greenhouse gases from the transportation sector will be imminent. In this context, then, this list’s focus on dirty, expensive, twentieth-century- style highway projects is not only shortsighted: it will also be extremely vulnerable to legal challenge under state and federal environmental policy laws.

Then send your letter to Julia Dawson, PACTS transportation planner:
Or mail your letter to:
68 Marginal Way
Portland, ME 04101
Or fax your letter to: 207-774-7149

You may also want to cc it to these members of the planning committee:
Donna Larson, Chair: dlarson@freeportmaine.com
Dawn Emerson: DEmerson@yarmouth.me.us
Alex Jaegerman: AQJ@portlandmaine.gov
Maureen O'Meara: mailto:ceplan@maine.rr.com
Mike Laberge: Michael.Laberge@maine.gov
Tex Haeuser: chaeuser@southportland.org
Steve Linnell: slinnell@gpcog.org

Monday, October 22, 2007

Rail in Maine

First, mega props to Christian for helping organize this year's GrowSmart Maine Summit. Thanks also to The League of Young Voters for giving me (and Sam and Melanie) the opportunity to attend. I, for one, found it to be a valuable learning experience. For one thing, I learned that the Augusta Civic Center is even uglier that the Cumberland County Civic Center.

More importantly, one of the workshops taught me some things I didn't know about the future of passenger and commuter rail in the State of Maine. Admittedly, there's a lot I don't know about trains in Maine despite having more than a passing interest in the subject, so maybe it's all old news to all you brave engineers out there. Me, I came away from the workshop (mostly) excited about the future. (More about that "mostly" in a moment.)

For one thing, the Town of Brunswick is awaiting the arrival of the DownEaster in a few years with plans for a pretty sweet train station, which is going to be located between Bowdoin and downtown. More exciting is what Patricia Quinn from the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority said might be in the works after linking Brunswick with Portland. Aside from the potential for future links to Rockland, DownEaster service to Brunswick will include stops in Freeport and Yarmouth Junction. From Yarmouth Junction, rail service can be extended up to Lewiston/Auburn. LA, in turn, could eventually provide a link to Montreal. Aside from that, there may one day be links to Augusta, Waterville and even Bangor.

That would just rock. With decent rail service to points maybe the State DOT would be less hell-bent about widening Route 1 and I-295. It'll be interesting to see how the tracks to Brunswick will be routed through Portland. Right now the assumption seems to be that the tracks will pass through Bayside (where another station would be built) and over a new trestle next to Tukey's bridge. However, I've heard from Portland City Councilors Kevin Donoghue and Dave Marshall that some people think a route through the Deering area and a new station on St. John's Street* might make more sense. However, I have no idea if the "K-Don & D-Marsh" option is really on the table or not.

In any case, there should be an bright future ahead for rail service in and out of Portland, except funding for The DownEaster is slated to run out in a couple of years. That would be tragic. I hope our legislators don't try to save a penny by spending a dollar & let the DownEaster die. If you don't want to choke to death on exhaust fumes it might be a good idea to buttonhole your state rep and let him or her know passenger rail needs to be the wave of the future in Maine. Otherwise waves of an entirely different sort will wash over us before the century is through.

*Basically the same general place where the old Union Station used to stand before it was razed to make room for a strip mall.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Pier politics

A news article in today's Press Herald describes the political advantage that has just tipped in the Olympia Companies' favor, since only Ocean Properties partisans are up for reelection next month.

While we can all take comfort in the expensive failure of big-money sleazebag politicos in their efforts to snatch up and Palm Beach-ify our Pier, we're now faced with the prospect of slightly more legitimate local developers who want to snatch up and Palm Beach-ify the same place.

As I see it, the fundamental cause of this whole mess was Councilor Cloutier's failure to define a clear and open public process from day one. Well-defined redevelopment bids are supposed to attract many firms with excellent track records and experience. The Maine State Pier redevelopment bid, burdened with Cloutier's rotten leadership and the heavy baggage of political risk, attracted only two firms whose political influence clearly outweighed their ability and willingness to create a great place on our waterfront.

Council candidate Bill Linnell wrote an excellent comment to the PPH article online. Because the Press Herald's online comments section is such a miserable swamp of trolls and shills, I'm going to cite fair use and reprint his comments in a much more dignified setting:

Captain Linnell of Portland, ME
Oct 17, 2007 5:58 AM

Can we talk?

If we don't re-start the bidding process, we may find ourselves simply substituting our headaches with Ocean Properties(OP), with problems with the Olympia Companies. OP and friends have been pushing for a quick decision because until yesterday, they had the upper hand. Similarly, now Olympia doesn't want to restart the bidding process, because at this point, they have the upper hand. It should be noted that all work thus far is saved on everyone's computers, and is not wasted. Either company would have the upper hand over any newcomers to the process.

But I'd like to make sure that it's Portland taxpayers who have the upper hand, and the only way to do that is to keep the competitive bid process alive. Healthy competition is what makes this country strong, from the free market to the NFL to the democratic process. That's why our economy leads the world. Just as the Patriots compete, so do candidates, parties, ideas and businesses. If you want the best price on plowing your driveway, only several different bidders will do.

A lack of healthy competition is a root cause of the Council's dysfunction: Nothing wrong with Democrats, but Portland has been a one-party town for too long. A less homogeneous gene pool within the Council would have avoided the too-cozy relationship with Ocean Properties. Third or fourth bidders were likely discouraged when they saw that the deck was heavily stacked with face cards George Mitchell, Bob Baldacci, Dennis Bailey, and Peter O'Donnell, all of the same suit as the Council leadership: Democrat. More competition, meaning stronger alternative party representation-- whether Green, Independent, or Republican--would encourage healthy debate and better decision-making. Likewise, more competition among the bidders would undoubtedly yield a better result. That would be good news for taxpayers and the waterfront.

Captain Bill Linnell
Third District Candidate for City Council

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


[this post contains 90% recycled content]

Last night was decision night for the Maine State Pier and the results were ... Inconclusive. That's right, a 4-4 deadlock on both proposals. ( Councilor Jim Cohen recused himself due to a potential conflict of interest.) Juicy details here and here. New, less juicy details here, actually.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Greatest Bar in Portland

I'm not ashamed admit it - I'm a huge fan of the Greatest Bar in Portland. I don't know what it is about this bar, but I know of no better place in town to get a bit tipsy, listen to some top quality live music, or chat up the loveliest Indy Babes you ever did see. It's cozy like The Bramhall Pub but hip like The White Heart. Unlike The White Heart, though, the Greatest Bar in Portland has more of a boudoirish opium den vibe to it. Yes, this bar is actually better than The White Heart. In fact, this bar equals and surpasses the old Free Street Taverna or Ale House in its awesomeness. I mean, there are rumors Eggbot will soon have a regular gig here. Eggbot! (Does that mean the Greatest Bar in Portland is equal to the legendary Stone Coast - Eggbot's old haunt? I wasn't in town in those days but I'm still going to say yes.) Meanwhile, this place has the best selection of psychedelic music on any jukebox in town - not just your everyday Velvet Underground or Jefferson Airplane - I'm talkin' H.P. Lovecraft and other obscure groups here. Oh, and the jukebox selections are on vinyl. I'm sure I'm not doing the GBiP the proper justice it deserves in my description of it. I wish I could go there tonight, but I can't. Want to know why?
Because what should be the Greatest Bar in Portland is actually a parking lot. The obscure lane in the picture runs from York Street down to Commercial Street next to a place called the Cannery building. What great potential empty lot across the way has. Alas, it goes to waste as automobile storage. Piffle! Portland can do better. Someday our fair Portinsula will get it's density back. Gone will be the parking lots and parking garages. In their place will stand corner grocery stores, bus shelters that are actually pleasant, places to buy underwear (just for you, Kevin), and, yes, the Greatest Bar in Portland.

Monday, October 8, 2007

New Bayside trail funded, Veterans' Bridge connection under discussion

Mirabile dictu, the Maine DOT actually wrote a (small, tardy) check for a project that will actually benefit its surrounding neighborhood this week: a new bike/pedestrian trail that will connect Tukey's Bridge to Deering Oaks through Bayside. The trail's construction will finally put additional private redevelopment activities and real estate deals into motion: read the Press Herald's article here.

Still unresolved are certain elements of the trail's design, including how it will connect with the dangerous and out-of-date sidewalk over Tukey's Bridge. There are already a number of unofficial "desirelines" in this area (see satellite view at left) from pedestrians seeking out the easiest and safest path between the East End neighborhood and the Back Bay or Tukey's Bridge paths.

This could be a great opportunity for the City and MDOT to eliminate the guardrail maze on the Washington Ave. off-ramp and install a safe, user-friendly connection between Bayside, the bridge path, Washington Ave., and the East End. We'll stay tuned...

In other news, there has been a lot of listserve activity on the Portland Bike-Ped Committee's e-mail group regarding the potential for a new bike and pedestrian trail across Veteran's Bridge. The bridge is currently rated number one in the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation Committee's (PACTS) draft list of priorities, and although that list does need some reordering, this bridge project could benefit bikes and pedestrians tremendously with a safe and surprisingly scenic route between the Portland peninsula and the Maine Mall area. The route is light green in the Portland bike map below, and it would provide a welcome alternative to the road-ragey Congress St. bike route (in red):

View Larger Map

The current bridge does have a sidewalk, but it leads straight onto a freeway on-ramp on the southern end of the bridge: cyclists and pedestrians must cross two lanes of freeway-speed traffic and numerous other on-ramp slip lanes to get to safety. Riding my bike on this bridge was the scariest cycling I've done in Maine - let's hope it gets better.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Perestroika for socialized parking?

How's this for your radical communist land policy? Tippecanoe County, Indiana has provided roughly 3/4 of an acre rent- and tax-free to every household in its jurisdiction by forcing every capitalist establishment and landlord oppressor to set aside mandatory quotas of their property for free public use. There's only one hitch: in order to enjoy this rent-free real estate, you have to be inside of a motor vehicle.

Tippecanoe County has 11 free parking spaces for every household, thanks to mandatory free-parking production quotas imposed on every building. And the local proletariat rabble still thinks that it's not enough.

Follow the link for a journey down the rabbit hole of America's socialized parking policies:

Salon.com: We Paved Paradise

Monday, October 1, 2007

Whose priorities?

PACTS, the regional transportation planning agency in charge of doling out federal transportation funds for our metropolitan area, just released its preliminary draft list of "high-priority" 2009 project candidates (listed in order below). Keep in mind that a gallon of gasoline will probably cost well over $4 by then, and also keep in mind that this is a draft list of priorities, theoretically rearrangeable with input from the public...

  1. Rebuild Veteran's Bridge (Route 1 between Portland and South Portland): $30 million

  2. Buses, ferries, paratransit vehicles: $15 million

  3. Gorham bypass, phase II (northern connection between West Gorham and Moser's Corner): $35 million

  4. Widen I-295 through Portland's Bayside and Libbytown neighborhoods: $30 million

  5. Widen I-295 through Falmouth, Yarmouth, and Freeport: $50 million

  6. Rebuild Exit 20 in Freeport: $11 million

  7. Philbrook Road area (between the Maine Mall and the Turnpike): $10 million

  8. Passenger rail to Brunswick (requires operational funding and completion of a 2-year study): $100 million
Note that a combined $91 million near the top of this list of priorities would go towards widening and "improving" I-295 in the same exact corridor as the $100 million Brunswick rail line, which clocks in at the unlikely-to-happen bottom of the list.

These two projects are competing with each other to achieve the same goal: to reduce regional traffic congestion between Portland and Brunswick. Rail transit would meet that goal at much lower costs to neighborhoods and air quality (and probably lower costs to future taxpayers as well, since maintenance expenses are smaller for railroads than for a six-lane freeways), but it's been shoved to the bottom of the list while freeways hog our money.

Why not commuter bus service to Brunswick while the rail study gets written? Where are the bus lines to Windham and Gorham? Will the Sidewalk to Nowhere on the existing Veteran's Bridge finally connect to Somewhere when they rebuild it? Why is virtually all of the proposed funding (save for that bridge replacement and an unwanted Robert Moses-style freeway widening) going to far-flung suburbs instead of town centers?

If I understood the appeal of drive-through cuisine and spending half of my leisure time trapped in a drivers' seat, maybe I'd be able to tell you. Instead, ask your PACTS representatives what kind of exhaust they're smoking. Then let your Congressional representatives know what the real priorities ought to be.