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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Posts tagged "Mobility"

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!

Getting people to the grocery store is important. Food deserts, car free folks, all important considerations. However, there are 2 grocery stores not more than 10 minutes apart on GPMetro’s Route 4 schedule. One of the biggest destinations, USM, however is not on the schedule and during peak traffic periods has a 25 minute headway between the before and after stops. Considering that buses run late sometimes, it is difficult to tell if you missed the bus at USM or not, especially when there is 25 minutes between the bookend stops.

I understand that efficiency is important in designing a bus route schedule, and real estate on paper schedules is at a premium, but doesn’t USM deserve a spot on the schedule? They represent what could be a huge market for GPMetro and due to many reasons, too numerous to mention here, are largely untapped. I have mentioned USM’s climate goals before, and every step in the right direction helps out. Making transit easier for people to use will increase ridership, decrease carbon emissions, and make for better places. 

Let me start off by saying that trails are wonderful things. I am involved in a local trails group and wish that I wish we could have trails everywhere. Trails for recreation, transportation, routes to school, routes to work, you name it. When it comes to transportation investments however, would I value a trail or a decent functioning rail transportation system? I will take the choo choo any day of the week.

So the Rails to Trails organizational goals are to essentially ‘bank’ fallow rail lines until they are needed again. Let me repeat the most important part…..until they are needed again. So if I own a rail line, but I don’t have enough business to warrant continuing operation along that line, but I want to see that it is preserved as a rail transportation corridor, I can let the line be converted into a trail. My tax liability goes away and in the meantime, a fun and useful trail can be built on the line for people to enjoy. Win! Win!

However, once those trails become integrated into the community, people begin to consider the trail a community asset and it is difficult to see or remember that the existing rail line was even there at all. I understand this sentiment and can imagine how difficult it is for a community to let go of something like that.

So why bring this up right here, right now. There are a number of rail lines in the State of Maine that have been converted to rail trails. These are in fact great assets to the communities, but if they can safely and efficiently carry passenger and freight rail traffic on them, then they need to be railroads again.

America is at an interesting juncture right now. We are at a point where rail transportation is becoming economically feasible due to high oil prices. In  Maine where 3 rail corridors between the New Hampshire Border and the Greater Bangor area have nearly 60% of the population within 5 miles of rail line, we have a tremendous opportunity to establish sensible transportation opportunities. It won’t be for everyone of course, but if you live in a town like Augusta or Waterville and work in Downtown Portland or Bangor, this has the potential to save you money, increase your productivity, and get you somewhere safe and fast.

So what is the middle ground here? What if, where feasible, you could build a trail next to a working rail line? What if the track was at one time double track and only required a single track? Would it not be easier to seek easements and takings next to a functioning rail line to build trails on properties that abut the line, but don’t require a connection to it? I am thinking farms or forests here, not an industrial area. There is a middle ground in many cases.

Where it isn’t feasible or safe to build something like the trail above, then don’t do it. Rails to trails people, if the train is coming back on a line and it will take away your trail, let it happen. Seek the middle ground and see what can be worked out, but do not put up a fight to keep the trail where a higher use of transportation needs to be.

Transit people and bike/pedestrian people are on the same side. We want mobility choices that aren’t reliant on foreign oil, congested roadways, and time spent in gridlock. We want sensible transportation choices that don’t require over 15% of our income to be spent on the automobile industrial complex. When the train comes back to town, let it come. That is the time to start pushing for bike lanes, shared streets, and new bike and pedestrian easements elsewhere. I am sure that in most cases a reasonable compromise or solution can be made, it is just a matter of asking the right questions and thinking about reasonable compromises.

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