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

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Nice plan - now what?

Over the past few months, various town officials, planners, highway engineers, economic development professionals, and environmental group representatives have been hashing out a plan to deal with road congestion west of Portland, especially in the vicinity of South Gorham, where several major commuter routes, Routes 22, 114, and 112, converge on the 2-lane bottleneck at the center of this map:

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The Maine DOT's recent expenditure on the $28 million Gorham Bypass (shown above as Route 112 on the western edge of the map) turns out to have been a $28 million relocation of the traffic problem, away from Gorham Village to this area. Quite an expensive lesson in the futility of road building.

After the new road opened and failed to make miracles happen, the Maine DOT and the Maine Turnpork Authority committed an additional $1 million to a planning exercise to try to relieve congestion in this area, for real this time. The Gorham East-West Corridor Study group has been meeting since April 2009, and while many of the players involved probably came into the process ready to draw new bypass roads on the map, the Study's consultants have (mercifully) guided the process in a more comprehensive, and constructive, direction.

After 18 months of meetings, the players have come to some encouraging conclusions: first, that roads won't solve all their problems (and that we wouldn't be able to afford any even if they could); and second, that smarter land use patterns and more transit services need to come before new roads. This latter point is a remarkable departure from previous studies, like the Maine DOT's I-295 Corridor Study, which treated transit as an afterthought and are therefore already irrelevant.

The Gorham East-West study began with an analysis of existing patterns of growth in Greater Portland. Under historical development trends, the suburbs west of Portland would soon become an unlivable tangle of cul-de-sacs where commuters waste hours stuck in traffic, forests and farms disappear under developments, and nothing is within walking distance. The study's participants rejected that scenario for an "urban and rural" growth pattern, which would focus most new jobs and housing in village areas, thus making it possible for people to drive less, and create transit-friendly communities. With changes in zoning laws alone, the study found, many of the congestion problems in Scarborough and Gorham would improve, even without any new roads or transit services.

With input from municipal officials, developers, and planners, the study is proposing that the first step to managing congestion should be focusing new growth in these specific areas:

But in the mathematical models the study is using, this scenario - focusing growth in specific areas - would still leave a lot of people, including riders on new bus routes - stuck in traffic every day. So the next step was to look at transit services - both existing ones:

...and new transit routes that the region hopes to implement by 2035. The red dots in the map below indicate ridership projections, under the land use assumptions mentioned above - namely, that town centers in South Windham, Gorham, Standish, and elsewhere will have added thousands of new housing units and jobs by 2035.

The study assumed that major bus routes would run every 10 minutes, making schedules unnecessary, plus trains (in orange) running every 30 minutes on three routes radiating north, west, and south of Portland. You'll also see new local bus routes (in yellow) close in and going out all the way to Standish and Buxton, and new express buses (in green) running between Portland and downtown Gorham, North Windham, and Scarborough. The red dots indicate the number of rush-hour riders each those routes could expect in 2035.

According to the study's model, this level of transit service would save commuters from wasting 3,400 hours stuck in traffic in a single evening rush hour. If the average worker's time is worth $15/hour, that's roughly $100,000 saved every day - to say nothing of savings in fuel use, or parking costs.

It's important to note that the precise transit routes and service types aren't being determined in this study - it's simply making the point that these areas would need a similar level of transit investment to meet their goals.

Once the study's participants had thoroughly examined the possibilities of better land use and transit, they turned to new roads to address the few locations that would still get stuck in stop-and-go traffic even with better transit and land use patterns. Those locations were clustered around the South Gorham/Scarborough neighborhood shown in the map above - the bottleneck of Routes 114 and 22.

They looked at two scenarios: one short bypass coupled with spot improvements to existing roads:

...and a more ambitious "ring road" between the Turnpike and the new Gorham Bypass road:

Note that both scenarios would include new freight rail service along the Mountain Division line between Portland and Fryeburg, plus new local streets in Standish Village.

To the surprise of some, even these new roads would not solve all of the region's problems - there would still be areas of congestion. But, if all three strategies are employed together - land use, transit, and focused new roads - the region's future looks better than it otherwise would be.

Here are the modeled "vehicle miles travelled" under each scenario. Note that the new roads - especially the more ambitious ring road under scenario 2 - do indeed encourage people to drive more.

... but the new roads wouldn't appreciably affect the regional share of trips made by sustainable modes of travel - walking, biking, transit, and shared rides.

All in all, I think that a small investment in new roads - I'd personally prefer the more modest "scenario 1," which will cost less and induce less additional traffic - would be more than worth it if building them forces these suburban communities to grow in more sensible, sustainable patterns and invest in transit.

And the beauty of this plan is that it makes a tight case that new roads should not be built without first undertaking new "smart growth" measures to focus growth into village centers, and building new transit lines. Transportation advocates now have an even stronger case to make to re-allocate funds that the Maine DOT and the Turnpike Authority had planned to use on wider roads, and use them for better transit instead in the short term (and it helps that the argument comes from a study that was actually funded, at considerable expense, by those anti-transit agencies).

But the study's approach also has a major pitfall. If the region needs smarter growth, AND a big expansion in transit services, AND a handful of new roadway and freight rail projects, AND for all these things to happen more or less simultaneously, then how is that going to happen? How do you coordinate four to seven different municipal governments (South Portland, Scarborough, Westbrook, Gorham, plus the outer suburbs of Standish, Buxton, and Hollis) so that they agree to focus their growth in specific areas and provide local funds for better transit services? How is the region going to pay for $80-$100 million worth of road improvements, plus $40-$50 million for new buses and rail line upgrades? And how's all of this going to happen in a coordinated fashion?

I think that the region is going to need a relatively strong new finance and oversight authority, possibly funded through new tolls, to ensure that the municipalities stick with the plan. Funding for transportation improvements should only happen if the entire region can be assured that its investment won't be ruined by sprawl commuters from a renegade suburb that refuses to focus its growth. And this finance authority should also be structured such that it focuses its investments on better transit service, before it starts building roads.

Will suburban politicians agree to turn over a measure of their autonomy to what would effectively be a new regional government? That seems like a big "if." But the alternative - wasting thousands of hours every day in stop-and-go traffic - is almost certainly less appealing to the residents of those towns. The question is whether suburban town managers and officials can swallow their "local control" pride and lust for new roads in favor of a smarter, more sustainable regional solution.

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