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

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A map of pedestrian problem areas in Portland

This map shows all, or most, of the pedestrian-environment issues that Portlanders identified in the first public forum of the Portland Peninsula Transit Study a few weeks ago. Click to enlarge:

Note that clusters of problem areas concentrate along I-295, especially at its interchanges, and along major car-oriented arterials like Franklin, Washington, and Forest.

Please leave a comment if anything was missed, and I'll try to bring it to the Committee's attention.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Gas tax "holidays" lead to gas price hangovers - so bring it on!

Two thirds of our presidential candidates are now pandering to the electorate with promises of a gas tax "holiday" - a temporary moritorium on federal fuel tax collection that "would shave 18.4 cents off the per-gallon price of gas and 24.4 cents off diesel," according to the Dallas Morning News. To put that savings in perspective, gas prices have risen 42 cents since January.

If you're interested in lowering the price of gas in the long term, this is a horrible idea. It will also severely deplete the federal highway fund, which doles out money for road projects nationwide. For these reasons, I wholeheartedly support the concept.

Economists have railed against this plan because it won't actually do anything in the long term about gas prices - in fact, it's actually going to make matters worse. Rising prices ought to give people the message that they need to make the changes they need to make in order to consume less gasoline. Eventually, slackening demand will cause prices to stop rising. Some commodities experts estimate that this may happen when the price of gas tops out at about $10 a gallon (see this New York Sun article).

But if the government meddles in the meantime, Americans won't be as inclined to conserve, which means that gas prices will continue to rise, and at a faster rate than they would without the tax "holiday." And when the "holiday" invariably ends, motorists will be whammied with a sudden 20 cent jump in prices. So a summer-long gas tax holiday seems like a great way to guarantee $5 a gallon gasoline just in time for the fall hurricane season.

At the same time, the federal government's highway fund will lose billions of dollars for every month of gas tax vacationing - which also means that the federal capacity to fund new highway and road projects will wither away just as rapidly. And so the odds of expanding I-295 in Portland and building a second Gorham Bypass continue to diminish. Awesome!

Last night, a bunch of Maine truckers drove their rigs 800 miles to protest in D.C. At about 10 miles to the gallon, each truck spent over $300 for the one-way trip (not including engine wear and the opportunity costs of lost revenue). It probably wouldn't make them feel any better to point out that they could have spent less than half the money for a train or bus ride to Washington...

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Greater Portland Bike Map

Click here for a larger version of the Greater Portland Bike Map, a thumnail preview of which is visible at right in the sidebar.

Click the icons and routes marked above for additional information.

You can also find this map by searching the Google Maps directory of shared maps. Enjoy!

Monday, April 21, 2008

MDOT wastes $16 million a year on do-nothing engineers

Op-ed: Get Priorities for Roads in Order. Streamlining the state's transportation agency would save money that could fix infrastructure.

Maine lawmakers just approved fee increases on Maine motorists amounting to $160 million to patch up Maine's crumbling bridges. This might be an important expenditure, but with Mainers struggling to pay their bills, the State House should have looked at another way to pay, by trimming the fat at MDOT headquarters in Augusta.

This state document indicates that MDOT spends about $16 million a year on "administration and planning" - those salaried pavement cheerleaders who are hard at work dreaming up fantasy highways that Mainers won't ever be able to pay for in the foreseeable future. Sending pink slips to our fuddy-duddy traffic engineers won't only liberate our state of some of the most radically right-wing partisans in Maine government, it could also save taxpayers millions every year.

Simply cutting the planning and administration budget in half would free up enough money to fund all of the bus services in Portland, Lewiston/Auburn, and Bangor. Here are some specific suggestions about how we can start:

  • Eliminate the position of Deputy Commissioner for Policy, Planning, and Communications
    Writing policies and impractical plans are detrimental to MDOT's task of maintaining Maine's roads and highways. Necessary communications tasks can be reallocated to the Commissioner and other staff.

  • Outsource Turnpike management
    Lease the Maine Turnpike on favorable terms to a long-term lessee to manage and maintain the tollway with restrictions on toll increases; use the lump-sum proceeds to pay off the turnpike's obligation bonds, fix the rest of the state's maintenance backlog, and initiate new transit services (see the Chicago Skyway for a successful example of this style of infrastructure maintenance).

  • Eliminate the MDOT's Environmental Office
    The Environmental Office studies cultural issues, wastewater management, landscape architecture, DEP permits, and the like. These are undoubtedly important considerations, but again, since these studies are only necessary for new, large capital projects, this office is superfluous and should be eliminated. In cases where such studies are required for renovation or repair projects, they can be obtained more efficiently and with better analysis from third-party private contractors.

  • Restructure the Bureau of Maintenance and Operations to redirect resources away from the Traffic Engineering Division and towards the Divisions of Bridge and Highway Maintenance.

  • Eliminate the Office of Passenger Transportation
    Relocate staff and management for existing passenger transportation services (such as the Maine State Ferry) to the Bureau of Maintenance and Operations. Eliminate planning staff and reallocate passenger transport planning authority to regional councils of governments and metropolitan planning organizations. [As you ought to be well aware, I am a strong advocate for passenger transportation. However, the state's office is frequently an obstruction to good ideas - in a state as large and geographically diverse as Maine, planning passenger transportation is more appropriately done on a regional scale]

  • Streamline the Bureau of Planning and charge the office strictly with the task of assisting municipalities in maintenance and securing federal funds for maintenance projects. Within the Bureau of Planning, eliminate the Policy Development and Statewide Planning Division.

  • Eliminate the Bureau of Project Development and relocate a reduced staff dedicated to maintenance projects to the Bureau of Planning and to the Bureau of Maintenance and Operations.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Good news for vibrant Maine towns and cities

As the Legislature wraps up its work in Augusta, it looks likely that three promising initiatives will be enacted as law and help foster downtown economic development, even in the midst of a construction downturn. Full disclosure: the first two of these items were action items recommended in "Charting Maine's Future," the report written by the Brookings Institution and GrowSmart Maine, my employer. We've been working hard these past couple of weeks to get these passed in the State House:

  • A newly-expanded historic preservation tax credit has the potential to change the landscape in Maine's downtowns by adding a strong incentive for developers to rehabilitate historic buildings and add affordable housing and workspace to Maine's historic downtowns and village centers. This credit is especially valuable to Maine's service center communities, which typically have disproportionately large amount of historic and underutilized buildings. Renovating this kind of space for new jobs and households will help these buildings contribute to local tax rolls and also add new economic vitality to surrounding neighborhoods.

  • A new statewide building and energy efficiency code will replace a patchwork of different codes and standards in individual Maine towns with a single, statewide standard and a statewide enforcement training program. The Brookings Institution devoted two full pages to criticizing Maine's existing building codes system as an inefficient barrier to infill development and rehabilitation work for historic buildings. The new, statewide standard will get rid of hundreds of pages' worth of code rules and regulations in towns across the state and replace them with a single, easy-to-understand standard that's similar to codes used in dozens of other states.

  • Finally, the Legislature has also given preliminary approval to a new funding bill that would direct about $3 million a year to improving the state's railways - and one of the first projects will be expanding passenger rail to Freeport and Brunswick by July 2010. A major redevelopment project in downtown Brunswick is already getting underway in anticipation of future railroad service, and the Freeport Village Station shopping complex that's under construction is named for a planned train platform next door.

Friday, April 4, 2008

The million dollar parking lot

I've written before about how the new Maine Turnpike Headquarters Building won't include new sidewalks on Jetport Road because Turnpike hacks explicitly stated their disapproval of pedestrians walking in the area (see The Maine Turnpike Authority Resents Your Legs, published July 5 2007).

But that, alone, would be too benign an indignity for a neighborhood subjected to a Turnpike construction project. So the Authority also is planning to build an unnecessary parking lot that will send more oil-soaked runoff into Maine's most polluted watershed - and tollpayers will pay the million-dollar bill.

Portland's suburban office-park zoning in this neighborhood already requires more parking than ever gets used, but the Authority decided to tack on an additional 50 parking spaces than required by those generous requirements. At approximately $20,000 a pop, these extra parking spaces will cost an additional $1 million dollars - your toll revenues at work to keep the glorious promise of Socialized Parking alive!

Obviously, it's highly unlikely that these fifty extra spaces in the distant hinterlands of the Turnpike Authority's new parking lot will ever be used.

But hey, the Turnpike wants to be EXTRA SURE that no one will EVER have to walk an extra 1/10th of a mile from the existing park and ride lot to the new headquarters building. The million dollar parking lot rescues Turnpike employees from the heart-straining indignity of walking 200 yards from their cars to their offices.

Unfortunately, we're not just paying for this extravagance in toll money: this parking lot happens to sit in the headwaters of Long Creek, the state's most polluted watershed and currently the subject of a Clean Water Act lawsuit. Because of excessively huge parking lots like this one, development throughout the Long Creek watershed (in the heart of Maine's largest metropolitan area) will be severely hampered, and Casco Bay's water quality will continue to suffer.

One reason why the Turnpike Authority subscribes to the narrow-minded maxim that more pavement is good for our economy is because of its consistent failure to acknowledge the costs and impacts that its pavement exacts on surrounding infrastructure, whether it's built (dumping traffic and congestion onto local streets and roads), social (draining life and commerce from walkable downtown areas in Portland, Biddeford, and Lewiston) or natural (sending oil-soaked runoff into wetlands like Long Creek).

It would be nice if the Turnpike Authority spent our money at addressing some of these real problems. Instead, they're throwing millions around to study and "solve" problems they've fabricated themselves in their compartmentalized fantasy world.

Fortunately for the rest of us, the longer they fail to reform themselves, the less viable their agency will be in a century of expensive oil and limited budgets.

The Maine Turnpike Authority is busily paving the way to their own irrelevance.