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

Monday, November 30, 2009

Stop Letting the Gasoline Salesmen Determine Transportation Policy

Published in today's Press Herald by yours truly: "MDOT should not be (mis)managed by gasoline salesmen". A lengthy excerpt:

During the summer of 2008, when gas prices surpassed $4 a gallon, Mainers clamored for better alternatives: better bus and train services, streets with sidewalks -- anything to help unchain our maxed-out credit cards from the gas pumps.

A year later, we have the benefit of hindsight to see how officials at the Maine Department of Transportation responded to that crisis.

They didn't do anything.

After a year of record-breaking gas prices, Maine doesn't have a single new bus route, and Augusta's highway engineers still refuse to include basic sidewalks in road projects.

Even the long-awaited expansion of the Downeaster to Brunswick and Lewiston is still languishing for lack of funds.

MDOT bureaucrats like to blame budget problems for their failure. But if money is really so tight, why are they moving forward with a $4 million widening of Exit 7 at Franklin Arterial, a location where traffic levels have been in decline over the past 20 years?

Why did they recently spend $1 million just to study a short bypass around Skowhegan, when we'll never have the tens of millions of dollars necessary to actually build it?

The problem isn't a lack of funding. The problem is MDOT's self-interested mismanagement.

Augusta's highway engineers know better than anyone that their salaries are paid for from gas tax revenues. They are gasoline salesmen, earning a commission on every gallon sold in this state. They have a direct financial incentive to make us drive more -- no matter what the costs are for us, our economy, or our environment.
As I go on to note in the column, the Maine DOT's financial incentives affect their support of bus services in our state (bus riders don't pay gas taxes, after all) and their neglect of potholed rural roads (which generate fewer taxes per-mile than urban and suburban roads).

Highway lobbyists and MDOT's own employees are now lobbying for an increased gas tax. Others are talking about adding GPS units to cars and taxing vehicle miles travelled - but this change wouldn't affect the underlying incentive towards making people drive more. Instead, lawmakers need to draw the line and hold these guys accountable.

Nor is this problem by any means unique to Maine. State transportation agencies need to be an ally in our fight for energy independence, instead of being an ally of the oil companies and overseas petro-states.

Monday, November 23, 2009

New stuff on the streets

The summer construction season got off to an exceptionally late start this summer due to the long rains of June. But the work is finally finished, and Portlanders can now enjoy a number of improvements in the city's pedestrian and bike networks.

For cyclists: this fall brought some major additions to Portland's network of on-street bike lanes and routes. The city painted new lanes on Deering Avenue from Park to Woodford's Corner, on Forest Avenue between Woodfords and Morrill's Corner, and on Ocean Avenue, between Forest and Washington.

Above: the new Deering Ave. bike lane. Below, the Ocean Ave. bike lanes.

There are now bike lanes radiating in three directions from Woodford's Corner, and the complete Forest Avenue bike route stretches 5 miles from downtown Portland to Westbrook. The separated bike lanes merge with traffic lanes at Woodfords and Morrill's Corners, though, due to lack of road width. Luckily, traffic is already moving fairly slowly through those areas, and these new "sharrow" markers alert motorists that bikes are going to be in the lane:

This fall, the City also installed dozens of new bike hitches in front of neighborhood businesses all over the city. I noticed them first at Woodford's Corner, where bike parking had long been a struggle - but not anymore.

I've updated the new bike lanes in the Portland bike map in the sidebar to show the new routes.

For walkers: the past year witnessed a pair of very convenient new trails open up in the East End, under the sponsorship of Portland Trails. On July 1, Portland Trails opened a new stone staircase that descends from Fort Allen Park down to the waterfront East End Trail, near the Portland Company (photos from the opening). And last November, PT opened a similar stone stairway that effectively connects Marion Street, off of Washington Avenue, to Fort Sumner Park off of North Street.

Another long-awaited trail - the Bayside Promenade between Tukey's Bridge and Elm/Preble near the old Wild Oats Market - also went under construction this fall. It won't be finished until after the winter is over, but in the meantime, the trail's path has been cleared and graded, which makes it a pleasant and interesting walking path.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Difference Four Feet Makes

Over the long summer construction season, 3/4 of a mile of Read Street in Portland's Back Cove neighborhood was torn up and rebuilt as part of the city's sewer upgrades program. The project is nearly finished, and here's a photo of the new Read Street:

It may not look like much, but believe it or not, this represents one of the more significant livable streets victories for Portland this year. That's because the new Read Street is 4 feet narrower than the old Read Street - and while that in itself is a relatively minor change, it could be the start of a big trend across the city and even the entire state.

Obviously, narrowing the street - from 36 feet to 32 feet wide - is going to slow down traffic through the neighborhood. Especially when people start parking their cars on the street, and narrow the effective width of the street to 24' or 16'. That's going to make people safer, and it's why Read Street's neighbors fought hard for the change.

But for City Hall, there was a much more powerful argument for a narrower Read Street: it costs much less to build and maintain. Light duty pavement is about $3 a square foot, so saving 4 feet of width, over the .75 mile length of Read St., would save the city $3*4*.75*5280 [the number of feet in a mile]=$47,520 in construction costs - enough to hire a new teacher for the schools.

And that's just for the short term - the long-term maintenance savings will be even greater, since there will be less roadway to plow, salt, and sand, fewer potholes to fill, etc.

Then there's the fact that this whole project is designed to separate the storm sewers, which carry street runoff, from the sanitary sewers: the combined sewers that are being replaced had a nasty habit of overflowing into Back Cove during rainstorms. The new system will carry sewage from houses and businesses to the treatment plant, but most of the storm runoff from streets is going to be dumped into the Cove, along with whatever garbage might have been in the gutters. So the city is taking a general policy of reducing "impervious surfaces", in order to let as much rain as possible soak into the ground before it goes down storm drains.

Making the street 4 feet narrower gives falling rain less space to flood the street, and more space to soak into the ground. Along the 3/4 mile length of the project, there's going to be a total of 16,000 additional square feet of soil, grass, and tree roots instead of pavement. In a 2-inch rainstorm, that will prevent about 1700 gallons of runoff from polluting Back Cove.

So: the neighborhood gets a safer street. City Hall saves tens of thousands of dollars. Back Cove gets cleaner, and ratepayers pay less on sewer bills. Wins all around.

So how could this not catch on? The state DOT is projecting highway fund shortfalls of up to $380 million a year in the next decade. Spending money on unnecessary pavement ought to be something they'd want to avoid. But then again, the good old boys in Augusta just love pavement SO MUCH, it's hard for them to tear themselves away.

Exit 7

The Maine DOT is once again proving its bona fides as a bullheaded, 1950s-era highways agency with its plans to widen and expand Exit 7, Portland's northern gateway to the soon-to-be-redeveloped Franklin Arterial.

For over 20 years, Portland's Comprehensive Plans have called for a sidewalk and trail connection between Marginal Way and Back Cove Park. This connection would give low-income residents of Kennedy Park and others in East Bayside access to the waterfront from which the freeway has cut them off since the 1970s. It would also serve as a shorter, more convenient route to the Hannaford supermarket, the USM campus, and other destinations on the other side of I-295, and it would link to the Bayside Promenade Trail, which is now under construction:

Right now, there's plenty of room for a shared bike/ped pathway through the underpass at Exit 7. MDOT's planned project would also add a traffic light at the northbound onramp (just west of the park and ride lot, where the "1A" shield logo is on the map above), which would give pedestrians and cyclists a safe place to cross. The light will also help manage traffic to prevent it from backing up on the off-ramps.

But Augusta is overstepping its bounds (and its financial means) with its proposal to widen the southbound off-ramp at the expense of bike/ped access. Maine DOT would like to widen the road to add another lane, a move that would only be neccessary under their assumption that traffic will increase by 30% in the next 20 years.

To put that figure in context, here's how much traffic growth the area saw in the past 20 years - two decades of $1/gallon gasoline and the most economic growth of any period in American history - from Maine DOT's own data:

Looks to me like traffic growth in the past 20 years has been something close to 0%. But now that the City's implementing a plan to reduce car traffic, GM and Chrysler are bankrupt, and gas is heading back up towards $3 a gallon and beyond, now Maine DOT predicts that thousands of more cars are going to materialize, and so we need to spend $4 million on a highway widening "for safety purposes."

This is also an agency that would like to raise taxes by $80 million in a recession because it allegedly can't afford to maintain the roads and bridges we already have.

An agency that's focused on fiscal responsibility, minimizing the costs of Mainers' transportation, and improving the safety of everyone would embrace a scaled-back project that improves motorist safety while also providing low-cost bike/ped access, at half the cost.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Franklin Street Final Report

The final report of the city's Franklin Street Study Committee has been published.

The report offers three different alternatives for Franklin Street's future, from which the city will be able to mix and match design elements before it proceeds with a more detailed Phase II study. Funding for actual construction has yet to materialize, but redevelopment opportunities on the former expressway's vacant land could probably cover much of the cost. Besides, as the Press Herald notes in a recent editorial, any of the alternatives would be significantly less expensive than the underground freeway that was endorsed by traffic engineers in a 2000 study.

In the meantime, the study offers up some short-term action items: to convert one travel lane in each directon to parking spaces between Congress and the waterfront, for instance, and to coordinate traffic signals so that vehicles travelling 30 miles per hour or less will hit a wave of green lights as they travel along the street.

The report also politely asks the asphaltophiles in Augusta to refrain from fouling everything up with their counterproductive highway-widening fantasies. To wit: "[Exit 7] should include a bicycle and pedestrian link between the Franklin‐Marginal intersection and the Back Cove trail. There is strong community support for an appropriately scaled connector at this location."

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Corey at the Portland Maine Daily Photo blog has published some shots of the under-construction Bayside Trail, an exclusive street for bikes and pedestrians that will extend from Elm Street in Bayside north to Tukey's Bridge and the Eastern Prom.

Much of the excavation for this project is being done in order to treat stormwater in the neighborhood, which is build on filled-in land. The "Bayside Promenade" will include raingardens and landscaped swales to collect and filter rainwater, rather than let it collect street grime and pollute Casco Bay.

Also in the works: bike lanes on Ocean, Forest, and Deering Avenues (several sections of these streets are still being repaved, after a rainy summer postponed work). Signs are up but the paint on the street isn't there yet; at this point, I wonder if Public Works might hold off on striping the lanes until next spring. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

L.L. Bean is moving out of downtown; will Renys move in?

LL Bean yesterday announced that it would be vacating its 20,000 square foot store on Congress Street, leaving a big hole in retail services in downtown Portland, according to Mainebiz.

When it opened in 1996, it was seen as a big vote of confidence in the struggling Congress Street corridor. It may be hard to believe today, but back then, just about the entire length of Congress Street was plagued by vacant storefronts, empty sidewalks, and a reputation for sleaze. Recruiting LL Bean to the neighborhood was seen as a coup in the city's revitalization efforts, and helped attract other tenants (like its next-door neighbor Olympia Sports, which moved in soon afterward) to do business downtown.

Congress Street today is resilient enough that the store's departure shouldn't be a big deal - indeed, in recent years, the inside of the outlet store seemed tattier than the street outside. But for a while, anyhow, LL Bean's departure is going to make it even more inconvenient for city-dwellers to procure reasonably-priced shoes and clothing without driving to the damned Mall. However, a large retail vacancy in downtown Portland is too valuable to sit empty for long.

The 20,000 square foot space would be perfect for one Maine company that's had its eye on the Portland market for some time: Renys. Renys is a general merchandise store (they sell towels, toys, laundry detergent, tupperware, etc., etc.) with a track record of locating stores in downtown areas and Main Streets. They've been holding out for a space that's big enough - and according to what I've heard, 20,000 square feet is their threshold.

Another long-awaited business that's allegedly searching for spaces in Portland right now is the grocer Trader Joe's. Last spring I asked a manager at TJ's Cambridge store about rumors that the chain was looking at Portland, and he confirmed that the company hoped to be operating in the Portland area by the end of 2010. Trader Joe's stores tend to be smaller than 20,000 square feet, but they could probably find some use for the extra space. For instance, the TJs around the corner from my college campus shared its space with a produce market similar to Rosemont.

The art-deco styled building (I believe it was originally a Woolworth's store) is showing its age, and it could use some work done when LL Bean moves out. And a new tenant will probably fret about parking, even though most customers will arrive on foot. But luckily, there's a city-owned garage right across Free Street, and City Hall should consider offering a long-term parking lease to tenants, like Renys, that would serve the community with affordable retail services.

Addendum (11/5): Another possibility being bandied about on Twitter is a Mardens, the surplus and salvage store. Even though a lot of people love Marden's, I can't say I'm one of them - I've found that their stores are usually a disorganized pile-up of big-box castoff merchandise. It's usually a gamble whether or not you'll find anything useful there - but then again, the same was true of the LL Bean outlet. They also seem to be aiming for bigger store sizes these days, so they may not be interested.