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

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Maine State Pier

Now that the economy has tanked and the developers with fake tans have slinked out of town, it's a great time for the city to take a deep breath and decide what the future of the waterfront will be.

Today's Press Herald includes a fantastic audio slideshow by Scott Hanson, Portland's historic preservation officer, that provides an in-depth explanation of the history of the Maine State Pier and Portland's Eastern Waterfront. The accompanying news article by Tom Bell is also excellent - as one commenter noted, "could this be a part of a brighter future for our threatened print newspaper?" I hope so (I also think that this feature generated the most complimentary and civil comments I've ever seen on the Press Herald's web site, which is another credit to the quality of the report).

I attended tonight's public forum and panel discussion about the pier and "related economic issues," but it was a bit of a disappointment. Panelists included Charlie Colgan, economist from USM, John Henshaw of the Maine Ports Authority, and a commercial broker from CBRE.

Unfortunately, with the exception of some rather discouraging shipping data from Mr. Henshaw, there weren't many economic insights to be had this evening. Mr. Colgan briefly mentioned research that indicates many waterfront areas have transitioned from an industrial economy to a service economy in the past 20 years, and then spent most of his time talking about other cities' waterfront tourist attractions and how nice it would be for Portland to have a pleasure ground where tenured university professors could dine and stroll on the pier.

The broker from CBRE largely echoed Mr. Colgan, saying that the Pier would be most valuable as a tourist attraction. His argument was more nuanced, though: he pointed out that there are over a dozen large empty lots in downtown Portland, so there's little point in perching office buildings and hotels on top of expensively shored-up pier pilings. Instead, the Pier should be an amenity that helps drive redevelopment inland, he said.

Mr. Henshaw guided the audience through a printed PowerPoint presentation of bar charts, unfortunately. But the gist was that Portland's cargo shipments are in decline, and cruise traffic has been variable.

Mr. Henshaw made two valuable points, though: first, that freight traffic is cyclical (and remember that we happen to be in the middle of a major economic disruption - one that's ravaging Mr. Colgan's favored service sector). Second, the Maine State Pier has an extremely valuable industrial and transportation asset: a deep-water berth where large ships can dock. And third, wind turbine shipments have begun to come through Portland... and what about the possibility of using Portland's working waterfront to assemble and maintain floating wind turbines in the Gulf of Maine? This last point seemed to compel the people in the room more than any other made this evening.

Another forum will be tomorrow evening at 7 pm in the Ocean Gateway building: this one will discuss ways to leverage developer investment to enhance public goods, like public access, quality jobs, and transportation infrastructure. A final forum will be an extended "community design workshop" on April 11. The City is encouraging potential attendees to pre-register here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

CLEAN-TEA will revolutionize federal transportation policy

Later this year, Congress is expected to pass a new transportation bill, which will set the country's transportation and infrastructure priorities. It's long been expected that the new federal transportation policy would address climate change, since automobiles and light trucks generate over 20% of the nation's greenhouse gases.

Last week, a formal bill was introduced. It still has a long way to go, with countless revisions and amendments in the works. But the broad outlines look to be positively revolutionary. Quoting from a March 12 press release from Rep. Earl Blumenauer's (D-OR) office [emphases are mine]:

Washington, DC – Yesterday, Sens. Thomas Carper (D-Del.) and Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) and Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), Steven La Tourette (R-Ohio), Melissa Bean (D-Ill.), and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) introduced The Clean Low-Emissions Affordable New Transportation Equity Act or CLEAN TEA.  The bill is predicated upon passage of a comprehensive climate change bill, such as the one considered by the Senate earlier this year, which would generate revenue for the Federal government. Under CLEAN TEA, ten percent of the revenue would be used to create a more efficient transportation system and lower greenhouse gas emissions through strategies including funding new or expanded transit or passenger rail; supporting development around transit stops; and making neighborhoods safer for bikes and pedestrians...

Sen. Tom Carper said: “Today, we fund our transportation system through a gas tax, meaning we pay for roads and transit by burning gasoline. When people drive less, our transportation budgets dry up. This means states and localities that reduce oil use, lower greenhouse emissions and save their constituents money end up getting their budgets cut. But CLEAN TEA reverses this negative funding policy by sending money to states and localities based on how much they reduce emissions. Now, we in the Congress have the great opportunity to address many national problems at once – finding additional funding for transportation infrastructure, building money-saving transportation alternatives and lowering greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.”

“Reducing emissions from the transportation sector will not only help us achieve our global warming goals, but will provide additional benefits to the environment, public health, the economy, and quality of life,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer.  This legislation will help finance our shift to a low-carbon transportation system that provides transportation choices, creates safe and healthy communities, and saves consumers money. I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure that any climate legislation we advance in the House recognizes the opportunities provided by the transportation sector.”

This arrangement could very well benefit Maine: our current greenhouse gas emissions are high, but Mainers have a high propensity to use transit and rail services where they're available (witness the success of the privately-run Concord Coach intercity bus service, or the Downeaster). A few new transit routes along key corridors - Portland to Lewiston/Auburn, Bangor to Ellsworth, Biddeford/Saco to Portsmouth - could reduce Maine's greenhouse gas emissions considerably, and put our state at the front of the line for these new federal investments.

But it can only happen if our state and regional transportation agencies stop wasting their time and our money with zombie highway expansion plans from the 20th century. A $40 million tollbooth on the Maine Turnpike, for instance, won't do squat to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions: legacy highway projects like these are a waste of precious money that would be better spent on better bus service.

The takeaway for Maine is this: if our state wants to receive federal support for infrastructure in the future, we need to start planning smaller highways and expanded transit services today yesterday.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Chellie snags earmark for a new METRO bus

Click here for the Portland Daily Sun story. I'd also like to note that, as a member of the Rules Committee, Rep. Pingree was also instrumental in boosting transit funding in the House version of the stimulus package. Thanks, Chellie - keep up the good work!

This same article notes that, of METRO's 27-bus fleet, "10 buses were purchased in 1990 and require up to $10,000 per year in maintenance costs. Four more buses, bought in 2000, are also reaching the end of their expected lifespans."

That's right - we're riding on buses that will soon be eligible for Antique Auto license plates. Between the stimulus package and this earmark, we'll still only be able to replace five of those ten oldest buses. Sheesh.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Best? Really?

The good folks (and Rights of Way readers) at the Portland Phoenix have nominated this blog as a candidate for Portland's best blog that isn't about food. I'm kind of surprised, since this other blog of mine has always been voted as the Best Blog of My Apartment by its electorate of one. Now the Vigorous North is sulking in the corner while Rights of Way goes off to the beauty contest.

And the same newspaper has ALSO nominated yours truly for "Best Portland Activist."

I've been waffling over whether I should self-promote. But the hell with it, vote for me!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

2008 a record-breaking year for public transportation in the US

Via yesterday's New York Times:

More people rode the nation’s public buses, subways and commuter trains last year than in any year since 1956, when the federal government created the Interstate highway system, according to a report by a transit association...

Use of public transportation in the United States has risen 38 percent since 1995.
At the same time, according to the Federal Highway Administration, cumulative highway travel in 2008 declined 3.6% from 2007 levels: Americans drove 107.9 billion fewer miles in their motor vehicles.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Why is this man smiling?

That's an honest question: what does a man who makes it his business to sell overpriced, embarrassingly out-of-date, and soon-to-be discontinued Hummers have to be happy about? Pet rock salesmen are more successful these days.

After much thought, I've come to this conclusion: it's a shit-eating grin, and the near-worthless overstock at his ghost-town dealership has left him with a lot to chew on.

When the Hummer brand goes the way of the AMC Pacer and its moron owners suddenly find themselves without replacement parts or services (rendering their tacky vehicles even more worthless than they already are) you will find me dancing on its grave, in the streets.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Traffic engineers are wrong. Again.

The Peninsula Traffic Study of 2006 was rejected in large part because of its recommendations for downtown streets like Franklin Arterial. The study, which was written by Gorrill-Palmer, a local traffic engineering firm, predicted that Franklin might need to be widened to as much as eight lanes to accommodate an exaggeratedly large amount of future traffic.

Neighbors rejected the study because it focused only on moving single-occupant motor vehicles, and many also also questioned the validity of the study's traffic projections. Now, updated data reveals that Gorril-Palmer's projections were wildly off the mark.

Consultants from Smart Mobility, the firm that's helping the city determine a more humane future for Franklin Street, prepared the above chart to show actual traffic data from the past 20 years, plus a range of projections for the future.

The outlying projection at the top is the one Gorrill-Palmer made for the Peninsula Traffic Study. The green line way below that one shows a projection with 20% growth in traffic, which Smart Mobility considers "unlikely." The red line shows 10% growth, a "realistic high count" for 2025 that would essentially put Franklin's traffic levels back where they were through the 1990s.

During the 2000s, a period of increasing gasoline prices and infill development on the peninsula, Franklin Street’s traffic declined substantially, to the levels of the mid-1980s. Gorrill-Palmer's projection was apparently made by extending the growth in traffic during the 1970s and 1980s into the 21st century, with no regard for underlying trends in demographics or energy prices. By their logic, the Dow Jones index should be over 20,000 by now.

In other words, if you're inclined to believe a traffic engineer's numbers, perhaps I could interest you in purchasing some General Motors stock? You'll be rich by 2025, I guarantee it!

Smart Mobility even hedges its 10% growth projection by calling it a "high count" - the upper range of what's likely to happen. Who's to say that motor vehicle traffic on Franklin Street won't continue its recent decline?

These updated data and projections demonstrate definitively that the projections of MDOT and other traffic engineering firms are, at their best, bad math. At their worst, they amount to an unholy voodoo science that's hell-bent on destroying our cities and neighborhoods.