Tuesday, December 18, 2007

PRESS HERALD

Roads or rails?

It's the $50 million question for a committee whose mission it is to decide which of the region's most serious transportation needs will get federal aid. Roads, or rails?

By TOM BELL, Staff Writer

December 16, 2007

WHO'S WHO
MEMBERS OF the High-Priority Projects Committee are:

– RICK MICHAUD, Saco city administrator, committee chair

– MIKE BOBINSKY, Portland public works director

– JOHN BUBIER, Biddeford city manager

– DALE DOUGHTY, Maine Department of Transportation

– DAVE COLE, Gorham town manager

– DAN JELLIS, Yarmouth town engineer

– DONNA LARSON, Freeport town planner

– MIKE MCGOVERN, Cape Elizabeth town manager

– TOM MEYERS, South Portland transportation and waterfront manager

– GARY WILLIAMS, Maine Department of Transportation
A pot of roughly $50 million in federal money will likely be available in two years to be spent on one to three big transportation projects in Greater Portland.

The question about where to spend the money – which regional planners have wrestled with for months with no public involvement ... has emerged as a hot issue.

A regional planning committee has drafted a list of 10 projects, with the goal of winnowing the list down to two or three projects to send to the federal government in 2009. Some of the top projects include adding additional lanes on I-295 in Portland and replacing the Veterans Bridge

This is the first time that the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation Committee – which represents 15 municipalities between Biddeford and Freeport – has gone after these kind of funds, which are earmarks in the federal government's five-year transportation spending plan.

For the past five months, a group made up of town managers, planners, engineers and public transportation directors has been quietly developing a priority list. The plan was for the committee to seek public input once it selected the top three projects to send to Maine's congressional delegation for funding. Everything was proceeding through the usual bureaucratic channels until September, when Portland transportation activist Christian McNeil discovered the list by reading the minutes of one of the committee's meetings.

McNeil posted the list on his blog, rightsofway.blogspot.com, which focuses on local transportation and land-use issues. He also put it on the e-mail list serving the Portland Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee.

The League of Young Voters – a Portland political action committee that is active in city politics –then decided to make the issue a top priority.

The group last week held a forum about the issue that was attended by 33 people, mostly young adults, Portland Mayor Ed Suslovic, three city councilors, Rep. Boyd Marley, D-Portland, the House chairman of the Legislature's Transportation Committee, as well as two television crews and three newspaper reporters.

Two other groups are also now involved, the Portland Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee and Portland Greens Streets, a citizens group that gives "green commuters" discounts at participating Portland businesses.

PACTS – which is not used to getting much public attention – has now received more than 20 letters, all expressing the view that the priority list is weighed too heavily in favor of increasing highway capacity and gives short shrift to alternatives, such as extending passenger rail service from Portland to Brunswick.

The letter writers are particularly opposed to the notion of adding lanes to Interstate 295 through Portland.

The $30 million project, which would effectively widen the highway between Exit 5 and Exit 7 in Portland, is now ranked as No. 4 on the priority list.

"The idea of widening that awful highway should be laughed out of the room," Patrick Banks, a member of the League of Young Voters steering committee, wrote the planners. "Seriously, this list doesn't exactly include a lot of choice for the teeming masses of commuters in southern Maine who would much rather not have to drive their cars to and from work every single day."

The list illustrates a "disconnect" between the goals of regional transportation planners and aggressive state policies that are aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, said Erik Osborn, chairman of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee.

"We are designing transportation systems that will generate more greenhouse gases in the future," he said, "and make it more challenging to meet targets we are setting."

Osborn, 33, commutes to work by bicycle within the city of Portland. While widening I-295 will make it easier for more people to drive into the city, he said, the additional traffic on the city's narrow and congested streetswill make it more difficult for bicyclists to get around safely.

Osborn and the League of Young Voters favor spending the federal dollars on extending passenger rail service to Brunswick. The $100 million project is ranked as No. 8 on the list, which puts it out of the running for getting any money.

While extending passenger rail service would be "wonderful," there are a lot of well-documented safety and capacity issues in the current road system that need to be addressed first, said Rick Michaud, Saco's city administrator and chairman of the High Priority Projects Committee, the PACTS panel that drafted the list. Michaud appointed the members on the panel.

"To make a simple analogy," he said, "if you have a home and your roof is leaking, you ought to be dealing with the leaky roof before you start building a new garage."

When I-295 was built through Portland, engineers designed the project so additional lanes each way could be built in the median.

The project is primarily intended to make that stretch of road safer by shifting through traffic away from the on- and off-ramp areas of Exit 6 at Forest Avenue, said Julia Dawson, a transportation planner for PACTS. If nothing is done, there will be a lot more crashes in the future as traffic volumes increase, according to a traffic analysis.

At the League of Young Voters forum last Tuesday, Dawson told the crowd that she was pleased to see so many people interested in transportation planning. She said that she agreed with their goals, but added that planners must take a regional approach that balances all modes of transportation.

"You have to be realistic," she said.

In an interview after the meeting, she said she didn't think the priority list would change.

There is not much disagreement about the top project on the list: $30 million to rebuild the 53-year-old Veterans Bridge, which links Portland and South Portland.

No. 2 on the list is $22.5 million to replace 19 transit buses, 17 vans or buses used for people with disabilities, and one passenger ferry, and also add 10 transit buses and 14 vans.

No. 3: $35 million to build a four-mile, two-lane bypass north of Gorham Village, connecting Route 25 near West Gorham to Route 25 at Mosher Corner.

Also on the list are:

– $55 million to build longer and wider ramps at I-295 exits from Freeport to Falmouth.

– $11 million to upgrade the exit 20 interchange in Freeport.

– $10 million to improve Philbrook Road near the Maine Mall.

– $17 million to build a new interchange on the Maine Turnpike in Saco.

• $30 million for several highway improvements in Biddeford, including building a new Maine Turnpike interchange that would serve motorists traveling from Sanford and Alfred.

In response to the public's interests, the High Priority Projects Committee plans to hold a pubic forum in Portland at some point next month to get feedback on the entire list.

The committee will then make a recommendation to the PACTS policy committee, which has 22 voting members, 19 of whom are staff employees of member cities and towns, plus a representative of public transit, the Maine Department of Transportation, and the Maine Turnpike Authority.

In addition, there are non-voting representatives of the Federal Highway Administration, Federal Transit Administration and the Greater Portland Council of Governments.

Osborn noted that there are no elected officials on the policy committee, and that those on the committee are too far removed from citizens.

"They are people who don't interact with the public all that much," he said. "They are used to working in isolation. It sort of came as a surprise to them that they started receiving public comment on this."

Tom Meyers, who runs bus service for the city of South Portland and sits on the High Priority Projects Committee, said the committee includes members who represent a wide range of stakeholdergroups.

Meyers said committee members are pleased that the public is showing an interest in what they do.

"How can you not be tickled that people are asking questions about how we should be investing our public dollars," he said. "These are great questions. I am happy seeing them being asked."

Duncan said planners have not decided how the decision- making process will proceed after the January forum. He said they want to win the endorsement of the cities and towns in the region, Maine DOT and public transit organizations before making a final decision in the fall of 2008.



Staff Writer Tom Bell can be reached at 791-6369 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com

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