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

Monday, December 29, 2008

Highway to Irrelevance: The Decline and Fall of the Maine Turnpike Authority, Part 3

Suppose you run a business, but your operating costs are increasing and people aren't buying what you're selling like they used to.

If you operate in the free market, you'd better cut back, reduce overhead, and either lower your prices or make big improvements in your product to bring your customers back.

If you're a dinosaur bureaucracy like the Maine Turnpike Authority, on the other hand, you keep on offering the same product, raise your prices 30%, and keep on planning a $200 million expansion based on chimerical growth projections.

It's sad but true. The Maine Turnpike witnessed a 2% decline in traffic this past year - the first decline in traffic in the toll road's 61 year history. At the same time, basic freeway maintenance costs are up nearly 40% since 2005.

Maine drivers and shippers are desperate for alternatives to the Maine Turnpike's 1950s-era transportation "solution." Their product sucks: why would anyone choose to pay more to spend unproductive time behind a steering wheel, when one could take the wi-fi-enabled Downeaster instead? Or enjoy the guilty pleasure of a mediocre movie on one of Concord Coach's hourly buses?

But instead of improving their product (say, by offering their own wi-fi-enabled commuter buses) the Turnpike Authority has decided to keep their crappy thing going, only at higher prices. Beginning February 1st, tolls on the Turnpike will be 30% higher.

The Turnpike Authority is obviously unfamiliar with basic economic theory, which maintains that an increase in your prices will generate a decrease in sales (or tolls, in this case). A meta-analysis of 101 studies on gasoline price elasticity by economist Molly Espey found that the short-run price elasticity of demand for gasoline is -0.26, and the long-term price elasticity is -0.58.

In other words, a 10% increase in this particular cost of driving will result, on average, in a 2.6% decline in driving in the short term, and a 5.8% decline in the long term.

Here's the takeaway: if you're talking about a 30% increase in tolls, as the Turnpike proposes, then we can expect a lot more people to try carpooling, or the bus, or the train, or staying at home. So once again, alternative transportation advocates can take heart in the Turnpike Authority's head-in-the-sand management: tolls go up, fewer people drive, and we get cleaner air and safer streets. Thanks, Maine Turnpike Authority!

Friday, December 19, 2008

A bridge over troubled traffic?

Portland Trails' Bayside Promenade Trail, which would extend through from Elm Street to the Eastern Prom, will soon be unveiling its final design. One of the biggest hang-ups involves how to cross Franklin Arterial:

Portland Trails and the trail designers have big hang-ups over crossing Franklin in the middle of the block, where the trail's natural course would be. The concept design (shown above) would detour bikes and pedestrians to Marginal Way, to cross at a new set of crosswalks there.

For me, this is a mildly annoying design, one that essentially says, "go ahead, car traffic, you're more important here." It also fails to accommodate bikes: what if I'm headed downhill on Franklin, and want to take a left onto the trail? This design would force me to do a u-turn at Marginal Way and ride a short distance, illegally, on a city sidewalk, instead of making a normal left turn.

This design is also more backwards-looking than forward looking. Franklin Street is in the midst of a redesign, and the community's vision statement calls for a "boulevard... that serves autos, existing and future transit, pedestrians and cyclists equally... and provide for human scale, pedestrian-oriented development." The future Franklin Street will include many more crosswalks and slower vehicle speeds. Why can't we start here?

And the design ignores reality. If there isn't a crosswalk, people will jaywalk. Even on a group walk a couple of weeks ago, when interested parties strolled along the proposed trail's length, nearly half of the participants scurried across mid-block to get to the other side, rather than detour to the intersection.

The desire paths that already cut across Franklin demonstrate what will happen without a proper crossing. Build a fence, and determined pedestrians will cut it down (it's happened numerous times next to the Noyes warehouse at the Oxford Street crossing, shown above). People will follow the shortest, most convenient path across to the other side, regardless of the designers' and planners' desires.

Still, the inconvenience of a detoured crossing pales in comparison to some peoples' desire: a long, high bridge over Franklin Street traffic. This, they argue, would eliminate the inconvenience of detouring to Marginal Way, and make people feel "safer" by separating them from traffic altogether.

But there's nothing convenient about having to climb a 20-foot hill on your bicycle. And there's nothing safe about streets where traffic is encouraged to speed and pay less attention because there's a bridge instead of a crosswalk.

A bridge would eat up a lot of real estate that could be better used as open park space. And with ramps that begin hundreds of feet away from the intersection, it would make it way more difficult for anyone to enter or exit the trail at Franklin Street. In fact, by making the crossing less convenient in so many ways, a bridge over Franklin would probably encourage even more jaywalking than the detoured-crosswalk alternative.

Finally, there's the cost consideration. A bridge would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to the trail's budget. For the price of a bridge, we could probably extend the trail westward all the way to Deering Oaks. I'm a minor supporter of Trust for Public Land, which is helping fundraise for this trail, and I've got to say that I have some serious problems with such a poor use of donor money.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Franklin Street Reclamation

The Franklin Street Reclamation Study Committee had its first, introductory meeting two weeks ago. The Committee members, who represent a broad range of business, neighborhood, and political interests, introduced themselves to each other, and a presentation from the city's historic preservation office showed what the Franklin Street neighborhood looked like before it was buried in a mass grave underneath today's Arterial (more on that in a bit).

The Committee also heard presentations on Franklin Street as it relates to the recent Peninsula Traffic and Transit Studies, plus a rather too-long-winded lullaby PowerPoint from a Federal Highway Administration engineer who was trying way too hard to convince us that traffic engineers aren't all sadistic, anti-urban, pave-everything ideologues (word to the wise, fella: actions speak louder than words. Better luck next time).

The next Committee meeting should be more interesting. Plan to attend if you can: Wednesday, December 17th at 6:30 at the State of Maine Room in City Hall (that's on the second floor, at the western end of the building). If weather permits, the Committee will take a one hour walk of Franklin. Dress appropriately and have proper footwear if you'd like to join them, and please also bring a flashlight.

Updates on the study will be posted on

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Bailout: Hell, No!

Maine's two Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, are reportedly on the fence on the issue of whether or not to support the multi-billion dollar Detroit bailout.

So, should we spend billions of dollars to save an industry that has stifled innovation and progress for thirty years? Should we write a check for the manufacturers that have literally driven us to the brink of climate disaster?

It comes down to this: you simply can not call yourself an environmentalist without raging and fighting, tooth and nail, against this bailout.

If you think that Detroit can change and innovate and build the vehicles of the future, then I'm afraid that you're the victim of an abusive relationship. Just look at this quote from GM vice chairman Bob Lutz in an interview yesterday (not two years ago, before gas prices spiked, not two months ago, before the Detroit beg-a-thon, but yesterday, for Christ's sake):

LUTZ: Let me just get one thing straight here: There’s a lot of talk about well, General Motors doesn’t make the right kind of cars or General Motors built trucks too long. At $1.50 per gallon, the American public wants sport utilities and large pickup trucks [source].

You can sympathize with the desire to save American manufacturing. But these companies' decades-long mismanagement and monopolistic struggle against innovation is what created the Rust Belt. The bigger threat to our manufacturers is the fact that their biggest customers are such poorly-managed corporations.

It's also important to note that Maine has very little reliance on the Anemic Three for our manufacturing industries. The few auto-parts suppliers that are based in New England do just as much business with successful firms like Toyota as they do with the Three Failures. For Mainers, the bailout represents a massive transfer of taxpayer money out of our state and into the Rust Belt, where it will fester and continue to rot away at American manufacturing industries with lousy management and obsolete technology.

It's time to call our Senators. The bailout is bad for Maine. It's bad for our environment. It's bad for our workers.

Olympia Snowe's Washington office: (202)-224-5344; or toll free: (800)-432-1599
Susan Collins's Washington office: (202) 224-2523; or fax: (202)-224-2693

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A message from the Anemic Three:

Coup d'Etat

I hereby seize for myself the AWESOME POWERS OF THE CAR CZAR!

That's right. I AM CAR CZAR!
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

The mighty Empire of Detroit will CRUSH YOU!

Submit now, and spare yourself for a hard life of noble slavery in the service of the mighty SUV!

Photos by omatix and Detroit Derek.

Friday, December 5, 2008

"I'm not sure they deserve it"

Adam Lee, president of one of Maine's largest car dealerships, is skeptical of a multi-billion-dollar bailout for the dinosaur manufacturers of Detroit. Via Green Inc.:

"I think it’s really, really wrong to be touting - in national TV, in their ads and in Congress - electric cars, hybrids and clean diesel on one side of their mouth, and on other side of their mouth they have lobbyists paid millions to fight against clean car rules," he said.
Detroit's car companies can't be hurting all that bad, when they're spending millions of dollars on lawyers to fight against higher gas-mileage standards in states like Maine.

They're already wasting our tax dollars by fighting reasonable efficiency standards in court - now they want to squeeze us for another $30 billion?

Here's an old favorite: GM workers protesting fuel-efficiency standards in 2002: