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You can’t get there from here
Regional-transportation planning has come a long way toward addressing sprawl and exploring transit alternatives, but there are many miles to go before it’s perfect
BY JESS KILBY
Travel Conditions in the Portland Area Today (Year 2000)
— Ten miles of road are congested on a regular basis.
— 22 of the 47 key intersections in the area experience high levels of congestion.
— Only three of seven* PACTS communities are served by local bus service.
— Public transportation accounts for less than one percent of all trips.
— 15,000 accidents were reported between 1999 and 2001.
— The region has 174 high-crash locations (locations where the number of accidents is higher than the state average for similar locations).
*PACTS expanded in 2003 to include 15 municipalities
Source: Destination Tomorrow Issue Paper #2: Travel Conditions Today and Tomorrow
Travel Conditions in the Portland Area Tomorrow (Year 2025)
— 25 miles of road will regularly experience congestion during the commute to and from work.
— 36 of 47 key intersections in the area will experience high levels of congestion.
— Public transportation will likely still account for less than one percent of all trips.
— If the current patterns of development continue, it is forecasted that in 2025:
— The amount of time we spend driving in our cars will increase by 62 percent during peak commuting times.
— The number of miles that we drive will increase by 41 percent during peak commuting times.
Source: Destination Tomorrow Issue Paper #2: Travel Conditions Today and Tomorrow
We used to travel by train, by trolley, by bus. Before the 1950s, tourists and commuters alike could move around and between America’s cities via a robust public-transit network. But with the advent of President Eisenhower’s interstate highway system in 1956 — actually called the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways because it was intended as much to move military troops and equipment as it was to jumpstart the economy — ours has quickly become a country ruled by the personal automobile. Funding for national rail service and municipal bus programs alike has been slashed, trains and tracks were gobbled up and dismantled by burgeoning automobile manufacturers, and now money is perennially granted to build more and wider roads.
This car culture has had consequences, some of which we’re just now beginning to realize: Air pollution, dependence on foreign oil, congestion, isolation, loss of inner-city neighborhoods to arterials and highways, sprawl. And Arianna Huffington isn’t the only one to notice. The good news is that local and state governments are beginning to get serious about addressing these problems, as evidenced by a handful of recent Portland–area transit studies that incorporate some relatively forward-thinking ideas.
The bad news is, as local anti-sprawl advocate Alan Caron puts it, state and local transportation planners are only "halfway there" in achieving a sea change in their cars-first mentality. And pro-car development that is in the works today may threaten the viability of a more robust public-transit system in the future, negating any thoughts of more progressive policies.
Portland has a lot on its plate right now, in terms of transportation projects. There’s the plan to connect Interstate 295 to the western end of Commercial Street, which already has the green light. There’s the OceanGate ferry terminal project on the east end of the waterfront, which requires solutions for parking as well as queuing. There’s the plan to move the Downeaster train station from its present location just off I-295 into the Bayside area, to link with future commuter trains to Freeport, Brunswick, and possibly beyond. And there’s the pressing problem of overflow on the city’s major arterial roadways — particularly Franklin Street — that’s pushing commuter traffic onto the side streets of Portland’s neighborhoods.
Regionally, there’s the Gorham problem: The suburb’s downtown has become a nightmare of through-traffic during morning and evening rush hours, and towns like Gray are beginning to feel the pinch as well. Congestion on 295 and the Maine Turnpike is getting heavier.
The Portland Area Transportation Committee (PACTS), a federally-mandated consortium serving 15 towns and cities in the Portland area (PACTS also doles out federal funding for transportation projects), has been studying these issues for the past several years. The agency just issued its comprehensive 20-year report, bearing the Disneyesque title of "Destination Tomorrow." Portland has also produced its own peninsula traffic study in tandem with Destination Tomorrow, through the work of a steering committee headed by Mayor Jim Cloutier.
The challenge with these studies comes in balancing the current and projected needs of motorists with a commensurate increase in resources for public and people-powered transit: buses, trains, trolleys, and paths. Activists both inside and outside the planning process have been calling for a greater focus on public transit than has been afforded, and just last week that advocacy came to fruition, at least in some part.
On the eve of Destination Tomorrow’s final approval, PACTS and Portland city officials decided the transit folks were right: More attention needs to be paid to alternative modes of transportation on the peninsula. The city submitted a proposal to PACTS to study these alternatives, as a complement to the peninsula traffic study. PACTS director John Duncan says the funding request will likely be granted, though probably not at the full $250,000 requested. If approved, funding will become available on July 1. The study would take about a year to complete.
The wheels on the bus
Unfortunately, the Portland peninsula alternative-transit study may be destined for a dusty shelf soon after its completion. Duncan says municipal interest in making public transit a larger part of the transportation picture is "different than a willingness to use the bus."
"And it’s also different," he says, "from a willingness to spend more property-tax dollars on public transportation."
This less-than-committed mentality toward transit was expressed when Portland Planning Department Chief Planner Alex Jaegerman announced the city’s intent to pursue the alternative proposal, during a Peninsula Traffic Study meeting on February 27.
"In brief, what we were thinking of doing was to say, if the level of investment is more or less commensurate — in terms of share of transportation funding — as it is now, what would be the optimal system for alternative modes [of transportation] for that certain level of investment?" he said.
"And then perhaps if you increase the level of investment, to a moderate or larger amount, what might be possible? And then a third scenario would be, if you actually maximize your investment in alternative modes, what might be possible in terms of maybe splitting that share of vehicles and other modes?"
Jaegerman said the intent of the alt-mode study would be to give the city "a range of possibilities at different investment levels . . . and then you can make the decision about how you want to use your resources."
And while he said the study "has legs — it will probably be a high priority," both Cloutier and Planning Board member Orlando Delogu stressed to the meeting’s transit advocates that the problem of increased vehicular traffic on the peninsula cannot be ignored.
"We can’t start out with the fiction that there’s a way to get people out of their cars and keep them out," Cloutier said. "The fact is, our mission here is to figure out traffic flow and how to go from there."
And herein lies the first of several Catch-22s intrinsic to the transportation conundrum: Commuters will not utilize a transit system unless it meets their needs, and municipalities will never fund a transit system to the level that meets commuters’ needs unless a critical mass is already using the transit system.
Duncan says there are several incremental solutions to this dilemma that Portland could implement, such as making downtown parking less available or more expensive.
"But how many employers would leave, and what would that do to downtown?" he asks rhetorically. "That would be tough."
The city could also concentrate on increasing bus service just on the peninsula, Duncan says. "But again, that’s going to take more money. And, gee, as we cut the Portland city budget, it’s tough."
But David Willauer, transportation director at the Greater Portland Council of Governments (GPCOG) — which works directly with PACTS and its constituent municipalities — insists the funding game doesn’t have to be played this way.
"If we invest in more roads to bring more cars into the city and more vehicles onto the peninsula, we are going to be faced with this increasing traffic-congestion problem," he says. "And how do we want to solve it? Are cars the answer, or do we want to make a similar investment in public transit to make it easier for people to use transit? You know, people don’t generally drive their cars into New York and expect to park and drive around."
"There’s no reason that you can’t invest the money that you use to build highways into buying buses or building transit facilities," he says. "It just takes a conscious decision."
That conscious decision will have to penetrate the halls of the Sate House, however, as Maine law currently only allows state gas-tax funds to be spent on highways, not on ways to decrease our reliance on roads.
There have been efforts in the Legislature to change this, but resistance from special interests is fierce. Representative Peter Mills (R-Cornville) recently withdrew a preliminary proposal to expand uses of the gas tax, after getting feedback that indicated the bill would never make it out of committee. Representative Sean Faircloth (D-Bangor) has proposed a similar bill that specifically allows for the funding of alternative, healthy transportation by state gas-tax receipts. The fate of his proposal remains to be seen.
The apparent ambivalence toward the still-larval Peninsula Alternative Mode Study creates a curious situation for which nobody seems to have a decisive explanation, namely that PACTS is calling Destination Tomorrow a done deal, regardless of the fact that future findings of the alt-mode study could have a ripple effect across the entire comprehensive plan — which is in many ways focused on getting commuters from neighboring PACTS communities into Portland as smoothly as possible. How can Destination Tomorrow move forward with this alternative study still pending?
"Well, that’s a good question," PACTS’s Duncan says. "I think what a good study on transit would be — for the Portland peninsula — would be a general policy study that says, ‘If we put a lot more public transit on the peninsula, what would happen overall?’ Not to spend a lot of effort on, ‘Well, if you put six buses an hour here, on this street, and you connected these two routes, at these two different intersections, and made the service run instead of until eight p.m., until 10 p.m., and you added more service on Sundays,’ and all this stuff that I’m just throwing out — that takes a lot of technical analysis, and I think that would be a waste of time."
Duncan mentions a decade-old, recently-updated study authored by then-City Councilor (and current US Representative) Tom Allen, the Portland Transportation Plan, as an example of the direction he’d like to see this new alt-mode study take. Allen’s study, which is regarded in the planning community as the definitive Portland transportation study, is, as Willauer describes it, "a plan that lays out all the neighborhoods in Portland and why they should be maintained at a pedestrian scale."
"People should be able to walk around in their own neighborhoods, and get on the bus where they need to, instead of just having the Metro stop on the curb like they do on so many streets," Willauer says of the plan’s recommendations. "You’d have some identified transport centers, which are like mini-stops, where you have a stop associated with a business or something, so you can be under some shelter and not just feel like you’re waiting out in the street."
Incidentally, Willauer makes a stronger case than Duncan for Destination Tomorrow going forward before the alternative-mode study is finished.
"The peninsula is really the hub of all the spokes of the wheel, because it’s the largest business activity in the state," he says. "And yet, what they realized in putting Destination Tomorrow together is that the region’s origin and destination trip patterns, for the way people get to and from work, is getting more and more complicated each year. People aren’t just living in the suburbs and coming to Portland anymore. Some people maybe live in Scarborough and they work in Gorham, or they live in Buxton and they work in Freeport. They’re all over the place. So they needed to have a real holistic approach to how they were going to deal with this increasing problem of more vehicle miles, and increasing suburban population expansion, without a lot of expansion in the urbanized area."
Into the great wide-open
The other side of the public-transit-is-too-hard coin is that driving into and around Portland is too painless.
"Right now parking is cheap in Portland, relatively speaking, and most employers pay for parking," says Willauer. "And so it’s easy to drive into Portland and find a place to park — even though it’s getting tougher and tougher — it’s still too easy, and that’s why people won’t take the bus. That’s the primary reason."
And Willauer notes that even with the rising fuel costs of late, "it’s going to take a huge uptick in gas prices to get people out of their cars. Probably more than what we’re seeing right now."
But the very fact that Portland is struggling to handle an increasing influx of commuters points to a problem that is larger than just the city’s lack of a decent transit system: sprawl.
Sprawl is defined as "dispersed, auto-dependent development outside of compact urban and village centers along highways and in rural countryside," and it’s what happens when state and local tax policies converge to push people out of what has become high-priced city life into the ever-expanding suburbs.
Portland City Councilor Jim Cohen, chair of the city’s newly formed Transportation Committee, says the state’s controversial school-funding formula is a major culprit in fostering sprawl. (Other widely cited factors include cheaper real estate and homeowners’ desire for their own plot of open space.)
"We have a system that allocates dollars based on valuation," he says. "Valuation is in part a function of demand and density. And so Portland by definition has high values, so fewer dollars get allocated to it. But outlying communities, there’s a little bit less demand and pressure on land, so their valuation is lower. So [the state] gives them more money, which makes it cheaper to live in the outlying communities, and our tax policy ends up driving people to live further away from the areas where there’s density."
Cohen says this paradigm affects not only the choices made by individual homeowners, but the fate of entire municipalities.
"All of the decisions communities make about how to grow, whether to grow — if they’re going to be financially smart, they’ve got to think about, ‘Well, what does it cost me, the more I have houses? What do I get back from the state, the more I have houses, the more I have business development? Am I putting unfair pressure on taxpayers, as a city, the more I have this kind of development?’ And I think a lot of cities have made the decision that they’re better off not growing, because state policy actually favors not growing," he says.
Alan Caron, president of the new anti-sprawl group GrowSmart, says communities are destroyed and resources are wasted when families and businesses scatter away from established cities.
"We want to say, if you live in an area that has an infrastructure already, and walkable neighborhoods and schools and all the other things we’ve invested in, let’s pour money into those schools — into those neighborhoods," he says.
Caron says there may be some relief from sprawl in the growing willingness among neighboring communities to explore the concept of regionalization. Municipalities that split the cost of a school superintendent or police dispatcher five ways instead of bearing the burden alone will see their budgets decrease, lessening the demand on property taxes.
"We’re getting killed by redundancy," he notes.
Moreover, Caron says, if communities begin to cooperate on sharing services, "it’s then a small step to get them to cooperate on planning and transportation."
And if towns work together on planning, the Department of Transportation might also approach its project management with a more regional approach.
"Right now DOT comes in one town at time," Caron says. "What’s the implication for the next place? Nobody knows."
So we’ve got sky-high taxes stagnating our cities and sending people packing to the suburbs, and we’ve got a lousy public-transit system that compels these same people to drive themselves to work every day. The final piece of the puzzle is such: By continuing to build and widen roads, we grease the wheels of this dubious, polluting system.
"We subsidize sprawl," Caron says. "You want to move to Buxton? Hey, great. We’ll build you a spanking new school. And you build a school and everybody else says, ‘Whoa, what am I doing here in Portland? I’m moving to Buxton, where my kids can get the greatest education.’ Then you all move to Buxton and we say, ‘Guess what? We’ll build you a better road.’ "
Caron says he’s encouraged by the recognition made in Destination Tomorrow that commuters are going to have to put up with some degree of traffic, regardless of any infrastructure improvements that are made.
"Congestion, it turns out, is not entirely a bad thing," he says. "Because for all the people who are moving to Buxton and Bridgton, if they have to deal with congestion they’ll think twice about it. It’s a price they have to pay. Not a price the rest of us have to pay, by giving them a better road."
But there are still some legitimate safety issues to consider in combating sprawl, such as the danger of traffic on the 295 exit ramps getting backed up all the way onto the highway — a very real scenario predicted by Wilbur Smith Associates, the consulting firm hired by the city to project future traffic flows.
There’s also growing concern over increased traffic on neighborhood streets when the arterials clog, which Cohen says is second only to taxes on the list of things his constituents worry about.
GPCOG’s Willauer says there are solutions other than new and bigger roads, however.
"What if everybody doesn’t go to work at eight o’clock in the morning?" he says. "What if people go to work at 10 o’clock and work until seven? What if people work at home? Or what if you get a carpool to work? These are called Travel Demand Management efforts because they change the demand of that peak-hour congestion, and they give employers a choice."
Convincing even a small percentage of nine-to-fivers to work well into dinner time every night, though, seems even less viable than convincing people to get the hell out of their cars and take the bus.
The road ahead
Interestingly, there’s actually a state law that requires municipalities to prove they’ve studied every alternative before widening a road. The Sensible Transportation Policy Act, passed as part of the 1991 referendum to stop the turnpike widening, is credited with being the crucial first step toward a more enlightened statewide transportation-planning mentality.
"For some of the highway engineering people, the issues we were raising, it was as though we were talking a foreign language to them," says Caron, who led the 1991 referendum campaign. "Their job was to measure traffic, and at a point where traffic got to a certain grade, make a road bigger. Very simple.
"We introduced this idea that first you ought to figure out why the traffic is increasing, and second you ought to figure out what could be done — whether there are some alternatives to managing that traffic. In other words, get ahead of the curve and actually plan traffic."
While it’s probably fair to say that the Sensible Transportation Policy Act has not been faithfully followed in the implementation of every single transportation project since the act’s inception, progress is undoubtedly being made. For example, PACTS’s Duncan notes that Destination Tomorrow is the first comprehensive plan they have ever intended to follow since PACTS’s creation in 1975.
"We’ve never had a long-range plan that we took seriously, is what I tell everybody — and it’s absolutely true," he says. "The long-range plans we’ve developed in the past have always been simply to meet what the federal agencies required of us, and we’ve never used it. Our intention right now is to use it."
(A quarter-century of squandering taxpayer money on useless long-range plans is a matter for a whole different story.)
The PACTS Policy Committee also voted last week to continue its practice of studying land-use issues in conjunction with the transportation projects it handles. This has particular relevance to the two Gorham bypass routes PACTS just voted to support, in that many people have voiced concern that such development will lead to further sprawl in the growing area.
And while the Metro bus service will receive a zero increase in funding from the cities of Portland and Westbrook next year, PACTS recently appropriated $450,000 in Federal Highway Administration funds to expand the Metro Pulse station on Elm Street in downtown Portland. Willauer says the plan is to create a heated, indoor facility with restrooms; he’s hopeful that there will also be monitors at the station displaying schedules for all of the city’s major transit terminals.
It’s not surprising that institutional change has been moving at a snail’s pace, but this may not be an issue that has time to wait for government’s plodding ways. Fortunately, public awareness appears to be growing at a much more rapid pace. Caron notes that GrowSmart’s first major event, a February 25 speech by former Maryland governor Parris Glendening given at the Holiday Inn by the Bay, drew a sizeable crowd.
"On a cold February night in Maine, an event sponsored by a new and relatively unknown group, with a retired governor from Maryland, turns out 400 people," Caron says. "And I said then, and I believe, that that’s an expression of a lot of discomfort just below the surface that people feel about the way Maine is changing. And the longer you’ve lived here, the more uncomfortable you feel."
The discussion on these issues continues, as well. The next PACTS Planning Committee meeting is at 10 a.m. on March 19, at GPCOG’s 68 Marginal Way office. The committee will be finalizing the integration of public comments into Destination Tomorrow, and finalizing DT itself. Public comment during the meeting is welcomed.
The Portland Peninsula Traffic Study committee meets the next night in the State of Maine room at City Hall, at 5 p.m. The committee will discuss the impact of the traffic study on Deering Oaks Park, and State and High streets. Get on your bike and head over.
Additional research contributed by David Garrity. Jess Kilby can be reached at jkilby[a]phx.com