Mainely Planning

Why plan for an uncertain future? Our world is changing in ways that we can hardly comprehend. The planning we have been engaged in over the last 100 years, is geared to a world with abundant energy, a stable climate, and a dwindling natural resource endowment that is reliant on cheap energy for extraction. That world is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

Oil price spikes due to supply/demand and geopolitical concerns, water shortages (Google Lake Mead, Central Valley, CA or the Ogallala Aquifer for details), and soil depletion are just a few of the problems we face. As we move forward, the notion that we can continue with business as usual (BAU) is not going to sustain us.

Thinking creatively and making difficult decisions will test our abilities, push our cultural boundaries and hopefully shape a world where these uncomfortable realities can be dealt with in an equitable and meaningful manner. I write about things I see, think, and work on as I transition from being a planning student into the world of planning. I am neither a technological optimist, thinking we can invent our way out of all our problems, nor a doomer, believing in returning to a world much like pre-industrial times. I believe that our creativity combined with the lessons from the past will be instrumental tools for laying the foundation for the path forward. Some of my ideas may seem radical, others are just based on common sense and keen observations.

Links of Note

Mainely Rural
The Old Pine Tree
Strong Towns
Project For Public Spaces
Streets Blog
Cap'n Transit Rides Again
Human Transit
Pedestrian Observations
The Broken Sidewalk
Maine Architecture
The Vigorous North
Depot Redux
Reason and Rail
Car Free Maine
Walk Around Portland

Transportation for America State Fact Sheets

A Reason to Plan

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The City of Portland has unanimously adopted a complete streets policy at their last City Council meeting on December 17th, 2012.

“By adopting a Complete Streets policy, the city has taken an important step to assure that each dollar spent on roadways and walkways is done so that all users will benefit now and into the future,” Mayor Michael Brennan said in the release.

For those unfamiliar with a Complete Streets Policy it provides for consideration of all transportation users regardless of mode choice. Implementation is however susceptible to interpretation, but is a step in the right direction!

"Congestion is a byproduct of success — it means a lot of people want to be there."
- John Norquist, CEO of the Congress for New Urbanism

Great article in the BDN the other day regarding some things I have already talked about here, regarding the Population and GDP of Maine, where those things are occurring and where the money is flowing. They hint that it isn’t flowing into the places where people are moving too, or where economic activity is occurring.

Is the State Giving Money to ‘Well-Off’ Suburbs at the Expense of Urban Areas?

The big take-away is the cities are back in a big way. Even lowly Waterville and Augusta are growing again, however state funding formulas for schools, roads and other investments aren’t flowing into these areas where services, jobs and people in need tend to be. This makes a huge case for increasing the value of our urban places through guided infrastructure investment and promoting projects that pay back big dividends to solidify the ground on which these places stand. Give the article a read.

The census tells us quite a bit about where people are populating and when. What we see in the chart below is a significant (not tested for significance) change in course for population movements. The data examines the population of central cities of each metro area, compared to the surrounding metro area populations. Suburban growth patterns continued to dominate the percent of growth through 2007 (noted by the tall blue bars above the metro area), then abruptly fell for both in 2007-2009. What follows is primarily growth in the central cities (green bars in 2009-2011) with some moderate growth in the surrounding towns.

I continue to believe that when faced with economic uncertainty, due to high fuel prices, sputtering economy, etc., people will choose a more efficient lifestyle. Cities are an opportunity for that, helping to reduce commuter costs and put people closer to the things they want and need. Even in the face of higher housing costs in central cities, the combined cost of transportation and housing is still a better deal. In a flat economy with high fuel prices, that is a choice many are inclined to make.

I have talked about improved rail service as not only a tool to increase mobility, but to build a sustainable development future for the cities and towns where rail is feasible. This Portland Daily Sun article speaks positively about the prospects for studying the link between two of Maine’s three metropolitan areas. Here is the link and text below:

Resolution Aims to Document Support for Portland to L/A Commuter Service

Published Date Thursday, 20 December 2012 18:06 Written by Craig Lyons

A plan to explore commuter rail service for Portland, Lewiston and Auburn is on track to get support from the communities’ governing bodies.

The Portland City Council’s Transportation Sustainability and Energy Committee endorsed a resolution that will be sent to the councils in Portland, Lewiston and Auburn to document the support for a commuter transportation system running between the two metropolitan areas.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said there have been some conversations among the cities about a bus commuter service but the decision was made to talk more about a rail service. He said the resolution is straight-forward and will show a joint commitment by the three cities to study a commuter service.

Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte said studying a commuter link is an important piece of planning for economic and urban development. He said the service wouldn’t only accommodate existing commuters but could open the door for the under-employed population by linking the two job markets.

LaBonte said Auburn is committed to the creation of a commuter system and recently allocated $500,000 for a transportation hub along Route 4.

"We want to see this happen quickly," he said.

The committee endorsed a joint resolution among Portland, Lewiston and Auburn that would support a feasibility study to look at a passenger rail service between the two metropolitan areas. The resolution was requested by the committee to start the process to look at the rail linkage between the communities after hearing a demand for that type of service.

By endorsing the resolution, the cities would seek state and federal grant funding to pay for the evaluation, according to a staff memo, and the study would include pieces on land use, economic development, environmental impacts, congestion mitigation and economic justice.

The study would explore additional topics that weren’t addressed by a two-year-old study done by Maine Department of Transportation.
The cities would jointly seek grant funding for the study from the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System and the Androscoggin Transportation Resource Center.

Gary Higginbottom, of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, said the study should look beyond the three cities but incorporate stops in the economic centers along the route. He said places like Falmouth, Yarmouth and New Gloucester could all benefit from a rail connection to the cities.

LaBonte said he’s interested in the commuter service having a long life and that’s likely going to require some sort of public subsidy. He said having a population density is key to building support for a contribution from the taxpayers.

Trying to serve more areas that might not have the population density could cause a public subsidy to lose its appeal, LaBonte said.

There was mention of commuter bus service, which does increase mobility, but will not inspire good urban development that is sustainable. Nobody ever built TOD around the bus station!

You can’t rely on bringing people downtown, you have to put them there.
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

A friend had a letter published in the Portland Press Herald recently, talking about land value taxation. Link and text below:

Land value taxation could bring a surge of new construction

By Bill Basford of Benton

A news article in a recent Portland Press Herald reported on a dramatic 23 percent decline in car ownership – 26 percent per capita! – in the city of Portland over the past seven years.

This great news was followed by a Press Herald editorial on July 30 urging the city to encourage this trend by relaxing minimum parking requirements, providing better walking and cycling access from off peninsula, and maybe even restoring streetcar service.

Another policy change that the city should consider is a change to land value taxation, or LVT.

LVT is a property tax system that dramatically reduces tax rates on buildings and increases land taxes to make up the difference, while keeping total property taxes the same as before.

A dozen or more cities in Pennsylvania have already changed to this system, or are actively working on this change.

Reducing taxes on buildings encourages developers to put up new buildings, including rental apartments and condos, by reducing the long-term costs of owning and operating a building.

At the same time, a higher tax on land discourages speculators from holding empty lots for years or even decades, while waiting for the value to rise enough to make a killing on the land, without ever building anything on it.

The value of vacant land is greatly affected by what is built on other nearby lots.

Land speculators are, in effect, gambling on if and when new buildings go up on nearby lots. By raising the “holding costs” for empty lots, the city can pressure land speculators to either develop their own vacant lots, to bring in enough revenue to cover the higher holding costs, or sell the land to someone else who can and will develop the empty lots.

Under Portland’s current property tax system, even ordinary surface parking lots can bring in enough revenue to cover the low taxes on otherwise vacant land, allowing speculators to leave it undeveloped for many years.

Several city blocks of surface parking just south and east of the Cumberland County Civic Center show the undesirable effects of Portland’s current low land taxes.

But Portland simply can’t afford to have so much of its limited downtown land area tied up in such unproductive uses.

LVT can be introduced gradually, allowing owners of underutilized land time to adjust their plans without suffering sudden unexpected losses.

For example, Altoona, Pa., recently completed a 10-year transition to LVT, from 2002 to 2011, resulting in a significant increase in both the number and value of building permits.

In comparison, Johnstown, Pa., a similar-size city about 40 miles west of Altoona, has not made the change to LVT and is still enduring a decades-long decline in building permits.

Harrisburg, Pa., the state capitol, with a population slightly less than Portland, changed to a graded tax system, taxing land at six times the mil rate of buildings and other improvements.

It has seen a big increase in new construction, despite other financial blunders that may bankrupt the city government.

While the benefits of LVT or a graded tax system will be most evident in the downtown business area, homeowners have little to fear.

Most homeowners will see a small reduction in total property taxes, with the only likely increases being for smaller than average houses on unusually large lots.

Maine state law now requires municipalities to tax all property at the same mil rate.

But this law was probably intended to prevent blatant tax discrimination, such as taxing out-of-town property owners at higher rates than residents, or taxing rental apartment buildings at higher rates than owner-occupied condominiums.

It should easy enough to convince the Legislature to pass enabling legislation for LVT, as long as all land is taxed at the same mil rate citywide, and all buildings are taxed at the same mil rate citywide.

Furthermore, this change can be made at low cost to the city, without requiring an expensive revaluation, since the property tax database already includes separate valuations for land and buildings.

In summary, a change to Land Value Taxation could bring a surge of new construction to downtown Portland, ease the very tight rental housing market, and draw in still more creative people ready to live without money-sucking cars.

Our national flower is the concrete cloverleaf.
Lewis Mumford

When considering where to make investments, I always think of where the return is going be made.

Looks like Maine’s 3 metros are increasing their share of the state’s GDP. 

What is most striking is that the rest of Maine is in decline compared to the 3 metro areas, with Portlandia leading the pack. Bangor and L/A are slowly recovering from the downturn and growing as well. Urbanists rejoice!

This data was sourced from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Let me not mince words….slip lanes are the bane of a pedestrian friendly downtown business district, but they may have a larger impact than that on your cities finances.

From a planning perspective, they facilitate fast travel and are suitable for highway on-ramps, rural highways, and places where there isn’t a chance in hell someone is walking or downtown businesses are trying to thrive. I also like to think of things in terms of value and how things build a cities tax base and that is where I intend to head with this post, not the traffic calming rant I seem to have started on.

To illustrate the point I will be making, I am picking on a particular intersection that has four right turn slip lanes, going in each direction and facilitating an effortless cornering maneuver for motorists. As I implied earlier, these are great for places where no one in their right mind would walk, but what are the costs when it is located in what should be a thriving downtown business district?

The marked areas in the map below represents almost 3/4 of an acre of land consumed by the transportation “investment”, and is at the south end of a somewhat thriving downtown (getting better by the day I might add). The block south of downtown sits a old mill that is witnessing a resurgence and has been the recipient of significant private investment dollars, yet when navigating this intersection, it may as well be a mile away. Not only is the street network designed for Interstate traffic (5 lanes including turn lanes), but the slip lanes lead you right into the heart of downtown at breakneck speed.

Not that everyone drives this fast when approaching the downtown business district, but the transportation network certainly doesn’t prevent it. In other words, it happens frequent enough for me to notice.

In terms of our point about the lost value to the city, these slip lanes represent what could be development opportunities for ‘thee’ prime location in the City. Not only is it close to the neighboring town across the river, but given the right changes in zoning code, these properties could allow for significant investment, never mind the fact that developing these properties is probably illegal according to the towns (and every other towns) current zoning code.

If I were a good (even remotely decent) graphic designer, I would crank out a sketch-up of these properties as they would look if developed with downtown buildings, with no setback from the street’s ROW (right of way). Not only would this add tax paying properties to the City, but would serve as a continuation of the downtown corridor linking the investment in the mill just south of downtown. As one approaches the City coming in from across the river, one would know they were arriving somewhere worthy, a place to arrive to, instead of a place to drive through.

Some might argue that the properties are too small for significant investment, but if we look at the property just north of the 0.19 acre property, it is actually only .145 acres and on it sits a very nice building that sadly is suffering from lack of investment. By combining the property that is 0.33 acres with the property (large parking lot along the river with 1.165 acres) to the northeast, you end up with a property large enough to build a great building site and provide some adequate parking. The same is the case with the parcels on the south end of the intersection.

I began this post thinking about tax revenue for the city and how to increase value. So lets play with some numbers… Pretend each corner attracted an average investment of $1M. At our current tax rate, that would represent an additional $96,000/year in tax revenue if my calculations are remotely correct. Considering that the infrastructure (street, water, sewer) is already in place in this area of town, this investment would be gravy for the city. They could either make other strategic investments in attracting business, or over time, reduce the tax burden on each property owner after the changes in the transportation system that led to this are reimbursed.

I keep looking at the places I happen by and see opportunities from strengthening communities everywhere. I won’t talk about why there is a 5 lane bridge between the two towns at this time, or the one-way streets that also facilitate fast traffic, but that too should be considered in a holistic fashion along with this. Perhaps the towns comprehensive plan will address these issues or a more narrowly focused downtown master plan could offer some direction? At this point it isn’t my place to bring these up, but hope that someone with more clout than myself, might run with it? These are all complicated issues and can’t be looked at in isolation, but it is good to start somewhere.

For my planning activism with the Greater Waterville Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, I have been looking into a lot of crash data, trying to learn about the nature of accidents in and around Waterville and how they could be mitigated.

I happened upon a story that I didn’t expect to find, but did. Waterville is looking into fixing a 5 way intersection at the corner of Western Ave., Lincoln Ave., and 1st Rangeway. The intersection can be a bit difficult to navigate, but in looking at the crash data for the Waterville area, it appears that the intersection is quite safe compared to other parts of town (Interstate Interchanges & Downtown).

While the perception is that the intersection is unsafe, what generally tends to happen is that people navigating that intersection approach it with some level of hesitation and a heightened awareness. Because everyone knows it is a “bad” intersection, it is made safe because people treat it as if it were a place to be respected. In the list of projects for the City of Waterville and Maine’s DOT is a redo of this “unsafe” intersection. While the improvements may in fact change the perception of the intersection as an “unsafe” place, the data suggests that this is a gross miss-allocation of resources. 

Waterville has a downtown business environment that is fighting like hell to remain a viable center of business activity. People take economic risks here by opening up businesses, the downtown development group spends considerable energy building up the downtown, but what is clear to me is that the street network that supports downtown isn’t doing an adequate job.

By the numbers, a two block section of downtown has had 84 accidents in the last 8 years. Most of those are rear-end/sideswipes between people backing out of diagonal stall parking were rear-ended or parallel parkers were sideswiped. As a planner, I know the value of downtown on-street parking to downtown businesses. People need to get in, conduct a transaction, and leave. Eliminating on-street parking is a looser for these businesses and will make traffic even faster due to greater roadway widths. Stories here and here.

What is needed however is a traffic calmed environment that will be a more inviting place for patrons of downtown businesses, families spending a weekend strolling along the shop lined streets, and as a result will slow traffic down, leading to less crashes.

The Amtrak Downeaster is a vital component to Maine’s Transportation System. There have been year over year increases in ridership since its inception. As the Downeaster nears completion of track work to Brunswick, ME a vital connection to car-free travel opportunities will only be enhanced, with passengers being able to connect to the Maine Eastern Railway in Brunswick, with seasonal excursion service to Rockland, ME.

As a former computer network geek, it is shown that the value of a computer network increases with the number of connections that can be made. The simple office networks of the early 1990’s allowed limited transactions between other office computers. Fast forward to now, computers can connect to data and information across the globe. No longer are businesses, students, and researchers limited to local resources. Transportation networks operate in the same way. As the network ads more resources, it becomes more valuable and useful. I am sure that there is an upper limit to connectivity for both types of networks, where diminishing returns begins to outweigh expansion. Our inefficient and fiscally unsustainable automobile network is a prime example.

This leads me to the purpose of our discussion. The graph below is a summary of Downeaster ridership between 2002 and 2011, showing an increase in ridership year over year, with a couple blips. As are all transportation networks across the world, there is always a degree of subsidy involved and the Downeaster is no exception. The State of Maine and the Federal Government kick in approximately $7.5M/year in operating subsidy. When we divide the ridership by this cost figure, we see that the subsidy per trip is actually going down considerably from a 2004 high of over $30/trip to a present day subsidy of less than $15/trip.

It will be interesting to see what happens after Brunswick becomes the new Northern Terminus of the Downeaster and connections between the Maine Eastern Railway are established. I would expect to see ridership on both lines go up considerably as the network becomes more functional to people seeking opportunities for car-free travel to experience all that Maine has to offer.

It was predicted that Maine and New Hampshire’s Concord Trailways would experience a hit to their ridership due to the Downeaster. They provide bus service between Boston’s South Station and Logan Airport with points north in both New Hampshire and Maine. In some ways, they offer a competing service with the Downeaster between Portland and Boston, but ridership figures show that in 2003 they had 216,000 riders and that ridership grew to over 400,000 in 2006. More recent figures are unavailable, but anecdotal evidence suggests that ridership continues to surge on the route.

While there may be other factors involved, I believe that what has happened is the transportation network increased its size and utility, and has added value to the system as a whole. People from Bangor can now reach Portland, and either continue to Boston on comfortable coach, or switch to an equally valuable service to meet their transportation needs.

People are clamoring for more options beyond the automobile. Gas in Maine hovers around $3.65 as of this writing, and we have vast distances to travel between our urban areas, both large and small. Increasing the size of the car-free network will only help keep Maine connected to the rest of the Northeast region and the important economic opportunity it represents.

I had some time to kill before catching a bus back north while in Portland, ME. I decided to head out and explore the Fore River Trail, finding a gem of a place, exploring Thompson’s Point, and a place with a historic linkage to its industrial/commercial past. While the land use of long ago is no longer reflected in the activities that are going on there, relics from the past reminded me that not too long ago, this property represented a significant amount of economic activity. Now it looks like people park trucks there and perhaps warehouse some items in the dilapidated buildings peppered about the peninsula.

When you approach the trail, you can head off in a couple directions. Heading westish, leads you parallel to the rail tracks of what I believe is the Mountain Division Rail line. This is also parallel to the Fore River and the Fore River Santuary. Heading south, takes you around Thompson’s Point where you get more of a taste of the industrial/commercial side I was describing in the above paragraph.

When I went west on the trail adjacent to the rail line, the corridor is a actually owned by the electric utility. I encourage the building of trails on utility easements because they are essentially an underused resource. Yes, the electricity (magnetic radiation and the electricity actually) in large amounts is bad for you, I hear. Don’t build your house under the lines is how it should be stated.

While walking along the trail, I happened upon a number of people, but only one of which was enjoying the trail for its stated purpose. The remainder, had staked out little camps and were either sleeping, smoking, drinking, or some combination of the those. All activities that can be freely enjoyed, but it led me to think about the trail, the users of the space, and how I would feel if I were a young woman, or an elderly couple. I happen to be a large imposing fella and probably view situations quite differently than some others do, but I would be hesitant to recommend the trail to a woman looking for a safe place to run. I am not an expert on homelessness, but know enough to know that they aren’t bad people, however there is something disconcerting about running into a handful who are engaged in various stages of intoxication.

Personally however, I appreciate the juxtaposition of the natural world and our industrial past. Seeing nature retake what was taken from it has always been one of my little pleasures. As much damage as we can inflict, our time here is temporary and overgrowing weeds around a former industrial site reminds me of my temporary status. Speaking of temporary, there was a makeshift memorial for someone who I do not know or ever will know. I wonder about his life and who he had an impact on. Somebody found him important enough to construct this tribute.

Rest in peace….Mike Coppersmith.

Misplaced investments abound anywhere you look. Investments whether public or private need to have a purpose and provide some sort of return. The place that I talking about today is in Portland, ME and is located just 1/2 a block north of the Amtrak/Concord Coach Station. The sidewalk is a private investment that facilitates travel between the parking lot of the Clarion Hotel and the hotel itself. Below is a handy Google Map of the site.

View Larger Map

What we see is a sidewalk that runs horizontally through the parking lot and abruptly stops nearly 5-6 feet from the public sidewalk leading to the train/bus station. Here are a photo looking out from the private sidewalk to the public sidewalk.

Notice that the fence isn’t there for security, but it does block passage through the majority of the parking area to the train station. I wonder if they thought a partial fence would be enough to keep hoodlums and vandals at bay, believing them to only put forth the effort if the fence prevented them from accessing 1/2 the parking area?

I am not sure why I am writing about this. People could in fact just walk around and through the roadway and enter the lot the way cars do. They could trample through the bushes or the hotel could have saved a couple hundred bucks in fence and spent it on completing the sidewalk. Now they have a fence that really doesn’t do anything, and an incomplete sidewalk that doesn’t facilitate travel to the train and bus station from their establishment.

I am not even sure I would have picked this up as a planner reviewing the site plan. It just seems that creating connections in logical places only improves a transportation system.

* It is noted that the private hotel owned sidewalk was built before the public sidewalk, which is the “only” way to get to the train station if one is on foot, unless you trespass on private property or walk in the roadway. Regardless, the investment should have been made by the city to link the two amenities up. The cost would have been negligible considering the entire cost of the project and reflects a serious lack of concern for how functional networks operate. It could be argued that the hotel wouldn’t want the sidewalk to be linked, which may be the case and that is their prerogative, but if an effort wasn’t made……

Asker Anonymous Asks:
Thanks for defending the broader concept of Rails w Trails. Why do you not sign your name to the articles?
mainelyplanning mainelyplanning Said:

Your welcome! I believe where possible, rails and trails are important pieces of infrastructure if done correctly. They may require a fence or some additional ROW, but they double the mobility options along a corridor.

I was thinking about your question before you actually asked and one of the things I was always concerned about was finding a job. Planning can be contentious and this is an avenue for me to share ideas, think outside the box, and suggest things that make sense, yet are politically unpalatable. I don’t worry as much about it since I have found employment, but I still have aspirations of bringing things into the fold that might draw criticism. My name is Scott Workman and I approve this message.