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

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Portland's Renegade Bureaucrat

Colin Woodard writes an excellent post-mortem of Portland's Maine State Pier and Ocean Gateway fiascos in last week's edition of the Working Waterfront newspaper. Woodard details how one city bureaucrat, former ports and transportation director Jeff Monroe, fabricated economic-impact numbers to convince the city's councilors to spend tens of millions of dollars on cruise ship infrastructure.

Woodard summarizes new research from Todd Gabe and James McConnon, economics professors at the University of Maine who surveyed actual passengers at the cruise ship gangway last summer:

"Their conclusions: the average Portland passenger spends $80.52 ashore, 22 percent less than previously assumed. Almost $7 of that is spent in Freeport (where many are bussed) and an unknown amount in the Kennebunks and the White Mountains of New Hampshire (two other popular bus tours.)

...This raises questions about Jeff Monroe's $200 per passenger per day estimates, which were contained in a 2002 city study used to justify the construction of Ocean Gateway. The figures clearly do not stand up to scrutiny.

...Taken together, [his] errors appear to amount to approximately $86 per passenger, nearly half of Monroe's $200 estimate, raising the possibility that the city built Ocean Gateway on the assumption that revenues to the region would be nearly twice what they actually are."
Monroe's optimistic estimate was used to justify the city's $21 million expenditure on the new Ocean Gateway cruise ship terminal. His fake numbers were called up again three years ago, when the city rushed to sign over the publicly-owned Maine State Pier to the politically well-connected developers at Ocean Properties, who promised to "fix" the pier's allegedly-unstable pilings in exchange for the right to build a $100 million hotel-and-office complex, replete with solar panels planted in the shade, on top.

Once the "necessary" repairs were made, the renovated Maine State Pier would also be made available for more cruise ships. But the city "needed" a private developer to foot the substantial repair bill.

"The public was repeatedly led to believe that the pier was in dire need of repairs," writes Woodard, "the costs of which were estimated at as high as $26 million."
Conspiracy theorists have had plenty to work with: when a competing firm unexpectedly responded to the official call for proposals, the city council let Ocean Properties redesign their plans not once but twice; Ocean Properties employees gave generously to the campaigns of the current mayor and to two successful city council challengers, including one who'd been their paid community organizer.

Here's the kicker: the pier never needed serious repairs at all.

The City finally paid for an independent assessment of the Pier's pilings this July, instead of relying on the faithful word of Jeff Monroe and private developers. A July 11th Press Herald article reported the results from engineer Wayne Duffett, who said that "once you get underneath, [the Pier] is in remarkably good condition, and for the most part quite capable for the loads it is designed for.''

Fortunately, the financial crisis swept the developers away before the City had a chance to make the same multi-million dollar mistakes on the Maine State Pier that it made on the Ocean Gateway terminal. Three years after the developers made their pitches to rescue the allegedly-unstable Pier, it's still standing - in fact, there's a cruise ship there today.

With the benefit of hindsight, the hundred-million-dollar hotel and office complex perched atop pilings in the ocean is a textbook case of real-estate-bubble development hubris. But three years ago, the plans dazzled the city into spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on staff time, attorneys, and meetings for the competition to develop the Pier. Woodard notes that "Ocean Properties employees gave generously to the campaigns of the current mayor and to two successful city council challengers, including one who'd been their paid community organizer."

Several of those councilors elbowed their way onto the City's Community Development Committee, which would have overseen large development projects like this one. Except now, with the credit crisis, there's not much for the Community Development Committee to do. Instead, Ocean Properties' favored candidates are spending a lot of low-pay hours with the mundane details of zoning language changes, proclamations, and liquor license approvals. One has to wonder whether a guy like Councilor Dan Skolnik, who is still really burned that no one is going to build a luxury hotel on the Pier, is wishing that he could be spending more billable hours at his day job as an attorney.

But why would Jeff Monroe, nominally a civil servant, manipulate so many numbers and lead the city to spend tens of millions of dollars on infrastructure it didn't really need?

As the Ports and Transportation Director, Monroe would have been in charge of overseeing the maintenance and operations of these multi-million-dollar facilities. It may have been a question of prestige. Or it may have been aimed at preserving his own job, by making the Pier and the cruise ship business look more important than they actually were.

Either way, it didn't work. Monroe got laid off last year as the city struggled to balance its budget through the recession.

A cautionary tale for citizens and their representatives: beware of bureaucrats bearing multi-million-dollar engineering schemes.

And for bureaucrats: beware of believing your own bullshit.

To read more about the Maine State Pier in the archives, follow this link.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Construction on the Downeaster line

The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority continues to wait for word from Washington about funding for its Brunswick extension project, but in the meantime, construction is about to get underway on a track rehabilitation project in Portland that will improve service on the existing Downeaster route and also prepare tracks for the eventual Brunswick extension.

Earlier this summer, the Federal Railroad Administration announced a half-million-dollar grant to the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority to improve the Downeaster's tracks in Portland, and to upgrade a turnaround near the Merrill Marine Terminal so that future trains will be able to turn and head north to Freeport and Brunswick. The map below shows the tracks that will receive upgrades as a solid red line, and the future northward extension will follow the dashed line up to Woodford's Corner and beyond:

If you've ever ridden the Downeaster, you've probably noticed the slow start coming out of the Portland station. The tracks that thread their way between the Cumberland County Jail and the new Mercy Hospital campus are old, and as a result, passenger trains are limited to a 10 mile-per-hour speed limit between the station and the bridge.

The planned upgrades will boost speeds on that section to 25 mph - not a huge difference, but one that will shave three to five minutes off of every trip south. The turnaround will also help the Downeaster deal with breakdowns more gracefully, and offer more flexibility for freight trains headed to the Merrill terminal.

Construction is set to begin this fall, and is scheduled to be complete by March 2010.

As for the extension to Brunswick, we should have a better idea of where that project stands next month, when the Federal Railroad Administration announces its first high-speed rail grants from the stimulus package (a Wall Street Journal article today outlines the stiff competition for stimulus funds).

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Elm Street in Bayside. This is the main route between downtown Portland and the new district of mid-rise office buildings sprouting up along Marginal Way:

Photo by Corey Templeton, originally published in his Walk Around Portland blog.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

PACTS blog and the new Regional Bike/Ped Plan

PACTS, the regional planning agency that directs transportation investments in the greater Portland area, has started a blog.

Keeping a government planning website up to date with the latest meeting minutes and planning documents isn't easy, and most public agencies (PACTS included) struggle with it. But blogs are easy for anyone to update, so hopefully, this will give citizens (and PACTS committee members themselves) a better way to stay in the loop.

The inaugural post
is all about the draft Regional Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan Update. The centerpiece of this plan is a mapped network of bike routes, sidewalks, and pedestrian trails in the greater Portland area, going as far west as Sebago Lake, south to Biddeford, and north to Freeport. You can provide feedback by leaving a comment.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Portland Peninsula Transit Study passes City Council Unanimously

Last night, Portland's City Council voted unanimously to adopt the Peninsula Transit Study into the city's Comprehensive Plan.

The City now has an action plan focused on reducing the need for parking lots and garages downtown and improving our transit, walking, and bicycling infrastructure. Here's a link to the list of priorities (PDF file).

Now that the Study is a part of the Comprehensive Plan, we also have a powerful legal barrier to Augusta's attempts to pave over our city with unneccessary highway lanes. The Study specifically states that Portland will better manage traffic in our city and ultimately reduce the number of cars coming downtown, because we simply can't afford to widen local streets and expand parking garages for more car commuters. Instead, we should be investing more money in better bus service, which is a fraction of the cost of new highway lanes.

This contradicts Augusta's rationale for building new lanes on I-295, Veterans Bridge, and elsewhere. Maine's Sensible Transportation Policy Act states that the Maine DOT's projects must be consistent with local comprehensive plans. Now that the Transit Study and its goals are part of Portland's Comprehensive Plan, we have a very strong legal argument for throwing cold water on Augusta's asphalt fantasies.

Will the Maine DOT, in its financially weakened state, risk an expensive lawsuit that will force it to divert more of its dwindling gas tax revenue towards better regional bus service, at the expense of its close friends in the sand and gravel lobby? I bet they will, and I'm looking forward to it!

Read last night's success story at the Maine League of Young Voters blog. The League was fantastic in orchestrating grassroots support for this, and I'm looking forward to working with them more as we get the Study's recommendations implemented.

The Council also heard the first (of two) reading of several zoning amendments that would reduce parking requirements and promote more walkable development in the city's off-peninsula neighborhood commercial zones, in places like Rosemont, Woodfords and Morrill's Corner, and North Deering. While not strictly a Transit Study recommendation, these changes are certainly in the spirit of the Transit Study, and they deserve to pass when the Council meets again.