Quietly last week, the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation Committee (PACTS) demonstrated that Southern Maine’s transportation priorities are firmly rooted in the realities of our current economic and environmental conditions. While the committee at first considered endorsing a pile of highway-related projects to receive federal money, it decided to push for less gas-guzzling ventures instead.
PACTS’s goal was to come up with a handful of expensive projects to be passed along to Maine’s congressional delegation; our senators and representatives will work to include those as earmarks in the 2009 federal transportation bill. The committee, comprised of various state and local officials, came up with a list of 10 potential projects last year, of which a dismaying number were decidedly un-green. Widening I-295 through Portland and constructing “phase two” of the Gorham bypass project were among the most egregious examples, aimed purely, it seemed, at maintaining or increasing the number of cars on the road.
However, in response to public outcry and the efforts of alternative-transport advocates (Portland city councilor Kevin Donoghue was especially outspoken) PACTS voted to eliminate the I-295 proposal and put its focus elsewhere. Last Thursday, the high-priority projects committee moved to request money for these three projects:
New public-transit vehicles, such as buses, handicapped-accessible vans, and a ferry for the islands. ($22.5 million)
Rebuilding Veterans Bridge, which connects the Portland peninsula with South Portland, and is listed with the federal Department of Transportation as “structurally deficient.” ($30 million)
A to-be-determined public transportation project that would extend northward from Portland. The precise nature of the project (bus or rail? to Yarmouth, Brunswick, or Auburn?) depends on the results of the Portland North Project two-year study, which will be completed by June 2009. ($70 million)
“This is a huge, positive development for affordable and environmentally-friendly transportation advocates in Portland,” blogger (and GrowSmart Maine communications director, and sometimes Phoenix scribe) Christian McNeil wrote at RightsofWay.blogspot.com. “The projects moving forward stand in stark contrast to the ten projects first proposed last year.”
However, there are still some hurdles ahead. The high-priority projects committee plans to hold a few more meetings to make sure their goals are in line with the public’s — and with local business leaders and politicians. Meanwhile, federal and state budget woes, a national highway system that depends on anemic gas-tax funds to function, and (literally) crumbling transportation infrastructure, combined with Congress’s chariness of transport-related earmarks (the infamous Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere” was part of the 2005 transportation bill), all ensure that the fight over the 2009 bill will be a spirited one. In other words, PACTS can’t count on those funds. But everything’s simpler once the priorities are in place.