Getting the green light on transport

Going Green
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  January 26, 2010

Exciting — if daunting — developments are on the transportation horizon in the greater Portland area. Even as they survey an anemic financial landscape, transportation planners want to change the way we think about how we move from place to place. Their priorities overlap in some places and diverge in others.

For example, the recently formed MAINE ALLIANCE FOR SUSTAINABLE TRANSPORTATION (spearheaded by the League of Young Voters, and comprising the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, Portland's Bike/Ped Advisory Committee, and several environmental organizations) is focusing on four specific initiatives: a city trip-reduction program, which would encourage city staffers to reduce vehicle use; a fee-in-lieu-of-parking program, in which developers pay a fee instead of building additional parking spaces; the establishment of a sustainable transportation fund, using the fees-in-lieu; and a no-turn-on-red policy at several key intersections, to help bikers and pedestrians.

The city, according to Judy Harris, director of the city's OFFICE OF TRANSPORTATION PLANNING, has many similar goals. City planners are particularly interested in leading by example in trip-reduction, by improving transport efficiency among city employees (which could mean anything from ridesharing to working from home). Harris is also looking forward to public workshops this spring on the Peninsula Transit Study, which was completed last year. The study put forth many recommendations to improve efficiency (it helped bring the U Car Share to town, for example); now, they'll look at what more needs to be done, and consider "reordering of priorities," Harris says.

The League, in addition to supporting MAST's initiatives, is honing in on the Sensible Transportation Policy Act, a 1991 state law (broadened in 2003) that frames the way state and local officials think about transit development and investment decisions. The law says transportation planning and community planning must be linked, and the League's "goal is to give the STPA teeth," says Hilary Frenkel, field organizer at the League and coordinator of MAST.

"In addition to opposing the bad stuff [like highway expansion] we're trying to support proactive measures," Frenkel says. She gives a specific example: if a pedestrian pathway is included as part of the widening of the Franklin Arterial exit off I-295, the League will consider that a victory because it combines a traditional (highway-related) transport with alternatives.

The PORTLAND AREA COMPREHENSIVE TRANSPORTATION SYSTEM (PACTS), the entity charged with planning in the Portland metropolitan area, sees the Gorham East-West Corridor Feasibility Study as another example of comprehensive planning. The study, which should be complete by summer, is examining transportation and land use between the Gorham/Standish area and Portland/South Portland/Scarborough. As they think about ways to address development and congestion in this region, planners are "considering different futures," says Carl Eppich, transportation planner at PACTS — including alternative transit and options that might not mean simply building more roads.

Green-transport advocates aren't convinced that the paradigm shift from traditional to sustainable transportation solutions has been fully achieved. The Maine Department of Transportation, Frenkel says, "has recently broadened discussion of non-highway alternatives" and has started "some innovative albeit small scale public transit efforts," but "its new projects, long term plans, and budget remain almost completely focused on highway expansion."

But in these tight times, it's hard to do otherwise. No goals, sustainable or otherwise, can be realized without cash.

"The biggest thing that [activist groups] can do help create new funding streams to support green transportation," Eppich says, noting that one-shot stimulus funds and insufficient taxes and tolls are not enough: "We literally cannot afford to maintain what's out there today with our current funding mechanism."

Deirdre Fulton can be reached at dfulton@phx.com.

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