Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Hit the Breaks on the I-295 Widening Plan

Column by

Councilor Dave Marshall
41 Pine Street
Portland, Maine 04102

In 1991 the citizens of Maine passed by referendum the Sensible Transportation Policy Act. STPA insists that the Maine Department of Transportation give preference to a variety of alternatives – public transportation and transportation demand management – before increasing highway capacity.

Despite the foresight shown by Maine citizens seventeen years ago, MaineDOT still operates as if increasing highway capacity is the only solution to decreasing safety on our highways. For the pas few years, MaineDOT has been planning the widening of I-295 through Portland and South Portland. Now, we the public have the chance to tell MaineDOT that its plan is failed.

Tonight (Wednesday 1/30) at 7:00 at Portland City Hall, MaineDOT will host a Public Meeting for its I-295 Corridor & Portland North Rail Study. At the meeting, MaineDOT will present its reasoning for widen Interstate 295 through Portland and South Portland.

MaineDOT’s widening plan is flawed. First, the negative impacts of I-295 at its current level of service already significantly diminish the quality of life in adjacent neighborhoods, yet the plan calls for widening the highway through the same neighborhoods. The widening plan is base on the illusion of increased safety through increased capacity while derailing funds for much-needed transit infrastructure. Finally, the I-295 widening proposal fails within the narrow reasoning for highway planning itself. MaineDOT’s has proposed to keep the bridges at either ends of the Portland peninsula as they are, thereby creating huge bottlenecks precisely where it proposes to decongest.

Portland’s Libbytown is an example of how I-295 has already devastated neighborhoods. A once vibrant working class neighborhood on the western edge of the Portland peninsula, Libbytown was carved into segments by I-295 and it’s off ramps, which have isolated and endangered its residents. The Victorian train station at the center of the once transit oriented neighborhood was demolished to make way for a strip mall. The volume and speed of the traffic going to and from the highways make the streets unfit for pedestrians and bicyclists. However, a committed group of activists has emerged in Libbytown, working to reunite and heal the neighborhood ripped apart by the highway. The modest gains now manifesting in Libbytown will be crushed and the problems exacerbated if I-295 is expanded.

The noise levels produced by automobiles on I-295 already demand mitigation through sound barriers. Residents from Portland's East Deering complained about the noise of I-295 traffic at a recent transportation forum, yet the cost estimates for the expansion of I-295 do not include sound barriers. In the South Portland neighborhoods adjacent to I-295, residents have been requesting sound barriers for years, to no avail. The South Portland City Council has gone so far as to pass a resolution against the expansion of I-295 based on noise. You do not have to be a sound engineer to know that if I-295 is expanded, then the noise from the increased traffic will further diminish the quality of life in adjacent neighborhoods.

During the meeting tonight, MaineDOT will tell us that widening I-295 will make it safer. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, highway accidents result in over 90% of all transportation related deaths.

If MaineDOT is truly committed to safety, it must invest in regional rail and bus services. MaineDOT’s Alternative Modes Feasibility Study of 1996 demonstrates that regional rail and bus services are viable. The Study recommends implementing hourly express rail and bus services 16 hours a day from Portland to Biddeford, Brunswick, Freeport, Gray, and Lewiston.

In conclusion, the citizens of Greater Portland want and deserve regional rail and bus services instead of a wider I-295. If the widening plan for I-295 is implemented, then our neighborhoods will be hurt by the increased traffic and noise. Furthermore, the widening of I-295 will result in increased automobile use, making our roads less safe. We must tell MaineDOT it is now time for the Maine Turnpike Authority and the State to redirect funds away from highway expansion and instead into regional rail and bus services worthy of the world-class global region that we are.

View District Two: A Work in Progress in a larger map