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 "Rail"

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!

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 rail (no pun intended of course) on about fuel prices, sustainability, and changing how we do business with regards to transporting ourselves. As I have noticed in Maine, we are lucky because the State has done a good job of preserving rail corridors. These will be instrumental to our transition to a more sustainable existence and density along those corridors is a big part of that. When crunching 2010 census figures, I found that within 20 miles of arbitrarily chosen (I looked at towns with rail and towns with people in them) station areas, over 900,000 or Maine’s 1.3 million people reside.This is a tremendous opportunity for conventional passenger service and allowing for people to have some great mobility options other than cars.

The map below is a view of the Southern Maine Portion of a proposed route map showing station locations, 20 mile buffers around the stations, and population density of census blocks within those 20 mile buffers. 

This map (below) is more of the same with 5 mile buffers around the proposed rail stations. More than 560,000 people live within census blocks 5 miles from these stations. At some point I will crunch the within 1 mile of stations numbers and get back to this, but regardless, this represents a great opportunity for both commuter travel and conventional longer distance service.

As we seek out ways to keep our population mobile and provide opportunity for employment, I think rail will play a big role in that mobility equation. For now I just wanted to talk about density, show a picture (map) of where Maine is at in terms of some initial feasibility. At a future point in time, I would certainly like to talk about current rail infrastructure, transit oriented development, rail vehicle technologies, and a few other important ideas related to this.

Here are some other maps that I created with station towns identified. Again, these aren’t official anything, just a boy, some data, and some ideas. Northern Maine above, Southern Maine below, just like it is on the map.

Enjoy. Comments welcome.