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

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What's in the stimulus for Portland

Above: the planned parkland along the Bayside Promenade Trail. The park and trail, which will begin construction within the next three months, are eligible for a $2 million investment from federal stimulus funds. That would be enough to landscape the park, but not enough to build an ill-advised overpass over Franklin Street (see below).

The Maine Department of Transportation, an agency that expects to lose $3 billion of taxpayer money in the next ten years from maintaining its unsustainably overbuilt highway network, has been granted a temporary reprieve from the federal stimulus bill, which will deliver $162 million for transportation projects. Most of the money will go towards fixing crumbling roads that MDOT can't afford to fix itself - but the good news is that the stimulus won't be building any new roads or highways in Maine.

The better news is that some of that money will be used to build new sidewalks and buy new buses, ferries, and vanpool vehicles for the entire state.

Here are some of the eligible transit projects on the table:

  • $18.2 million for new buses, paratransit vans, and ferries to replace aging vehicles and support expanded transit services;
  • $960,000 for new vanpool vehicles operating under the GoMaine program;
  • $5 million for track maintenance and rehabilitation on state-owned railroad lines;
  • $35 million to rehabilitate rails north of Portland and expand The Downeaster service to downtown Freeport and Brunswick.
Notably, MDOT dropped the ball on repairing Portland's hundreds of sidewalks and sidewalk ramps that are in dire need of repair. Augusta will now need to pay for those urgent projects out of its own pocket, using Maine's own gas tax revenues.

Instead, the big-ticket bike/ped item for Portland is a $2 million budget for the Bayside Promenade Trail (pictured above), which is supposed to begin construction this spring but has been lagging in its overly-ambitious fundraising efforts under the helm of the Trust for Public Land.

Potential funders have every right to be skeptical, as the Trust for Public Land's Sam Hodder has been single-handedly lobbying hard for an extremely expensive pedestrian overpass over Franklin Arterial. I've long been a supporter of the Trust for Public Land, but Hodder's bullheaded and unilateral cheerleading for the overpass idea is not welcome. Most pedestrian overpasses are magnets for crime and promote reckless driving on the expressways beneath, and an overpass over Franklin Street would feed into MDOT's desire to make Franklin Street look more like Boston's Storrow Drive.

Thankfully, the $2 million stimulus allocation for the Bayside Promenade isn't nearly enough money to build a pedestrian overpass over Franklin. Houston, Texas (where I lived in 2005 and where I still sporadically follow bike/ped issues) is planning two bike/ped bridges over its own freeways and bayous, both of which are expected to cost much more than $2 million. One, the proposed "Tolerance Bridge," would span a bayou that's about as wide as Franklin Street at a cost of $7 million. A second overpass with more basic architecture would span a four-lane expressway in Memorial Park to the tune of $4 million.

The Franklin overpass isn't ready to build by any means - it hasn't even been designed yet. But unless the Trust for Public Land is planning to build a hideously cheap pile of concrete and chain-link fencing, like the unused overpass that disgraces the Westbrook Arterial, there's no way they'll be able to afford to build an overpass here. Building an overpass at any price would only happen at the expense of the planned parkland that's supposed to be landscaped this summer. I can't believe that the Trust for Public Land and Portland Trails would be willing to make such an egregious mistake as that.

Other noteworthy local projects due to receive stimulus funds:
  • The intersection of Riverside Street and Warren Avenue near the Westbrook-Portland boundary will be rebuilt with signalized crosswalks and sidewalks, plus traffic-calming measures
  • Replacement of the railroad overpass on Veranda Street, including both sidewalks
  • Traffic calming and new crosswalks at the driveway of Lyseth Moore School on Auburn Street
  • Traffic calming around the UNE campus in Biddeford, including sidewalks and crosswalks on Route 9 (Pool Street)
  • Construction of new segments of the "Eastern Trail" recreation path through York County
  • New sidewalks in Gorham village, Wells Village (along Route 109/Sanford Road) and Bangor's Capehart neighborhood.

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