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

Thursday, October 2, 2008

BIG NEWS: Regional planning committee says 'no' to I-295 widening, 'YES' to transit!

Since there weren't any other people at this afternoon's meeting with journalist or blogger credentials, I think I can claim this as a scoop:

A special committee at PACTS, the regional transportation planning group that doles out federal transportation money for greater Portland, just voted to strike the proposed widening of I-295 through downtown Portland from its proposed list of "high priority projects."

Instead, the "High Priority Projects Committee" voted unanimously to endorse a $70 million earmark for commuter rail or bus rapid transit north of Portland, over $20 million for new and replacement transit vehicles, like buses and ferries, and a replacement of the Veterans Bridge between South Portland and Portland that includes bike paths, sidewalks, and lanes for transit vehicles.

This is a huge, positive development for affordable and environmentally-friendly transportation advocates in Portland. The projects moving forward stand in stark contrast to the ten projects first proposed late last year.

When I first wrote about the PACTS high priority projects last October, six of the top seven projects were exclusively road or highway construction projects. The north-of-Portland transit proposal came in a distant eighth, and its chances of moving forward looked extremely unlikely.

But thanks to public outcry from hundreds of Portlanders, PACTS began changing its tune last spring, by increasing its recommended funding for transit vehicles. Record-high gas prices over the summer, and increased concerns over the highway system's fiscal sustainability, also seem to have helped PACTS see the light.

Now, two major highway projects that had seemed likely to go forward last winter - a second Gorham bypass and the widening of I-295, for a combined cost of $65 million - are off the list.

The High Priority Projects Committee will continue to hold a few more meetings to vet the proposals with the public and with the regional Chamber of Commerce. Then the proposals will go to Maine's congressional delegation for (hopeful) inclusion in the 2009 transportation bill. Luckily, PACTS is now on track to make a recommendation we can all get behind.

To everyone who wrote a letter, attended a meeting, or shoehorned an elected official to get these priorities straight - great work!

UPDATE: More details on this afternoon's meetings:

First, I'd like to extend credit to Committee member and Portland City Councilor Kevin Donoghue, who made the motion to eliminate the I-295 widening from the list of projects and convinced enough fellow committee members to follow his lead. I'd also like to praise Cape Elizabeth's Town Manager Mike McGovern, whom I found to be exceptionally reasonable and helped fellow committee members sort through the complexities of funding these projects. The committee's vote to eliminate I-295 from the list of projects was a close one, at 5-4.

Second, to clarify, the $70 million earmark request for transit north of Portland will be set aside for a project that is yet to be determined, pending the outcomes of the Portland North Transportation Study.

That study will be conducted by MDOT, but thankfully NOT by its highway engineers. It will analyze which routes will be most cost-effective and carry the most riders to do the most benefit, and whether it should be a commuter rail or bus rapid transit line. This analysis is required under the National Environmental Policy Act and will help ensure that the money is put to the best possible use.

The general routes under consideration are from Portland to Yarmouth, and thence to Brunswick on one line, and to Lewiston/Auburn on a second line. Whether commuter rail or bus rapid transit is chosen, these transit lines could easily be extended south on existing rail and bus routes to Biddeford/Saco.

1 comment:

Paul Burdick said...

Congrats, Chris, that's great news.