Monday, February 26, 2007

Cruise ships work the waterfront

Late last week, Portland City Hall unwrapped two developers' proposals for the publicly-owned Maine State Pier. The Pier extends into Portland's deep harbor, which means that it is an ideal berth for large ships and an extremely valuable piece of marine infrastructure. Its wooden pilings have also been sinking and deteriorating into the harbor, and the city has been trying to find a tenant that would invest in the pier and breathe some life into the working waterfront for some time. Late last year, it turned to private developers to try and fulfil those goals.

The proposals we've received would at least shore up the pier, but with cruise ships, luxury hotels, and waterfront restaurants figuring prominently in both plans, it looks like tough luck for the working waterfront. Still, this being a big project for public real estate, we'll have plenty of opportunities to weigh in on these proposals, and to change them for the better.

At first blush, I prefer the Olympia Properties plan, shown above. Olympia is a Portland developer that has built a number of the Old Port's recent additions, including the Hilton Garden Inn and the currently-expanding office building next to Fore Street restaurant. They're also turning into Portland's leaders in green construction, having finished the city's first LEED-certified office building (50 Sewall Street, next to Oil Slick Marsh) and proposing two new LEED-certified buildings on and near the Pier in this proposal.

But what really strikes me about the Olympia plan are the public spaces. First and foremost is "Casco Bay Park," a proposed greenspace at the base of the pier that would give Portland unprecedented access to its harbor. The park would extend the Old Port's pedestrian environment into the harbor: the plan includes steps that lead down into the water for kayak launching and frigid wading.

The Olympia plan also breaks up the cold, bleak Compass Park at the end of the pier with a pedestrian-oriented collection of buildings that will house what the proposal calls "a variety of retail and artisan spaces" (read: t-shirts and scented candle shoppes). This might turn into an Old Orchard Beach-style kitchfest, but I do agree that Compass Park needs to be reworked in order to succeed as a public space.

More bonus points to Olympia for making their plan available on the front page of their web site.

I know less about the other proposal, from Portsmouth-based Ocean Properties, because these developers are too troglodyte to publish an electronic copy of the plan. I give them one strike for their hideously ugly fish logo and a nauseating web site. If they win the development, will the Maine State Pier look like that, full of champagne glasses, floral prints, and old people carrying tennis rackets?

You can't judge an urban development project by its developer's web page. From news reports and a few sketches like the ones above, though, I get the impression that the web page just scratches the surface of Ocean Properties' lousy sense of design.

Public space in this proposal is pushed aside to the tip of the pier in an "enhanced" Compass Park and on "public rooftop gardens." In my experience, public spaces that require a stair climb or elevator ride are seldom very vibrant, and in the rendering, Compass Park looks like it will remain exposed to the elements and inhospitable: windy and cold nine months out of the year and baking in the blazing sun for the other three.

The Ocean Properties plan dedicates a lot more space to automobile storage: they propose a large parking garage right next to the existing Casco Bay Lines garage, and they also dedicate a large portion of the pier itself to a surface parking lot. But the surface lot will double as an "event space," they claim - so add an oil-soaked field of asphalt to the list of lackluster quasi-public spaces in this proposal.

The one intriguing idea from this proposal is its dedication of a building on the tip of the pier to a "public market." This might be another euphemism for a t-shirt bazaar, but if it were something more like a public farmers' and fish market (like Seattle's famous Pike Place), it might compensate for some of this proposal's serious deficiencies.

Both proposals neglect the working waterfront: the fisheries and industries that define Portland. But both proposals will shore up the Maine State Pier, and one proposal would give Portland what could be some spectacular new public spaces. Cruise ships may be the order of the day, but these developments at least preserve the possibility of future industrial uses by securing the future of the pier itself.

A public forum and presentation of the proposals will be conducted at the library on Thursday, March 1 from 5:30 to 7:30.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The gentrification frontier

The West End of Portland has a reputation for being a tony neighborhood, mostly because of the grand old mansions that front the Western Prom near the hospital. But further east, towards downtown, there's more rental housing, including a few public housing projects.

In between is a transitional zone where stately townhouses abut run-down tenements. I've pinpointed the frontier between the western district of ambitious homeowners and the eastern wilderness of absentee landlords to this house on Emery Street. On the left, the house is clad in asphalt shingles (which are half-heartedly embellished with fake wood grains); on the right, wooden clapboards and fancy trim. Even the street tree on the left is older, with a plastic bag stuck in its limbs.

Of course, the left half of the house is going to be a bargain to the next buyer - remove the ugly shingles and give it a coat of paint, and the new owner will have quickly gained thousands in increased property value. In the meantime, though, asphalt shingles will keep the neighborhood cheap, and the home-improving medical professionals closer to the hospital where they belong.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Transit will not go gently into that good Pike...

The letter I'd written last week to the legislature's transportation committee received a somewhat overwhelming response. At the same time, other transportation and neighborhood activists in Portland have written to the committee to register their displeasure with the Turnpike Authority's "pave first, ask questions later" attitude.

All in all, the response has given me confidence that the Turnpike Authority faces a losing fight if it tries to ignore the National Environmental Policy Act and the state Sensible Transportation Policy Act - and any proposal to widen the Turnpike without improving the regional transit system would necessarily have had to ignore those laws.

One idea that's emerged is to have the Turnpike Authority pay for the budget shortfall in the state's Downeaster train service, as well as expansion of that service to Brunswick.

I myself am fond of the idea of letting the Turnpike expand, but dedicating the two new lanes to toll-free High Occupancy Vehicles (carpools, commuter vans, busses, and any other vehicle that moves more than one or two people).

We could also spend the Turnpike's money on Bus Rapid Transit service out to Windham and Standish on the state-owned Mountain Division line. Or new ZOOM commuter express bus routes (which could be wired for onboard internet access) north to Lewiston, west to Buxton, and east to Bath.

Ultimately, the Turnpike Authority's money is our money: we spent our tolls on the Turnpike because the Turnpike owns an effective monopoly on regional transportation.

So, how do you think the Turnpike Authority should spend your money? By strengthening its monopoly with an old-fashioned, SoCal-style widening project? Or is there a better use for transportation funds? Post your ideas in the comments, and next week I'll get to work on putting together a map of all your regional transit suggestions.

Sunday, February 18, 2007


I have a confession. One of the reasons that I've been writing this blog since I've moved to Portland was in the hopes that one of my readers would give me a career - ideally, a career related to improving Maine's natural and/or civic environment.

Well, dear readers, I'm pleased to report that I will no longer rely on any of you to pay my bills. All of you who were thinking about hiring me shouldn't have procrastinated for so long, because my audience at GrowSmart Maine has beat you to it.

I'll be working on their electronic communications and outreach and implementing some zippy new gadgets in their webpages and e-mails. One possibility includes starting a GrowSmart weblog - which would usurp some topics from this one, but that's OK with me. I'd like to dedicate The Vigorous North more to examinations of nature in the city, and though writing about the Turnpike is important, it's also a little off-topic here.

Nevertheless, expect a lot of Turnpike posts in the near future and check out my for other links if transportation wonkism makes you want to hibernate.

Also please keep in mind that views expressed here are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any of the organizations with which I work, including my totally awesome new employer.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Turnpike of the future

Today, the state legislature began hearing public comments on the Maine Turnpike Authority's request to widen Interstate 95 in the greater Portland area. As I have said in a previous post, this would be a perfect opportunity to install a regional system of commuter bus and rail services. The Turnpike Authority is flush with cash from its tolls, and it's also responsible for traffic nightmares in communities near Turnpike exits: here's its chance to atone.

Frustratingly, although this is clearly a Portland-area project, the early decisions are being made in Augusta, where the legislature must authorize the Turnpike Authority's plans. A representative from the Authority did visit the City Council a while ago, but City Councilor David Marshall reports that "the presentation made it clear that alternative modes of transportation will not be considered until the end of the planning process. At that
point in the process the deal is basically done." This stone-age way of doing things is clearly illegal (see the Sensible Transportation Policy Act), but it looks as though the Turnpike Authority (which might consider changing its name to The Museum of Eisenhower-Era Transportation Policy) will need plenty of reminding.

For now, we can remind our legislators that they have authority over the Authority. Any planning for the Turnpike should consider a range bus and train alternatives, and when considering widening, the Authority should also be forced to examine the consequences of increased traffic on surrounding communities (like Gray, where Turnpike traffic literally reduced the village center to a slum). Here's the letter I wrote to the Transportation Committee (Senator Dennis Damon and Rep. Boyd Marley, chairs):

Re: Authorization of the Turnpike Authority's Capital Program (widening between Scarborough and Falmouth)

To the Joint Standing Committee on Transportation:

A contemporary saw about highway planning states that "trying to solve traffic by building more roads is like trying to cure obesity by loosening your belt." Increasingly, planners from all disciplines are appreciating the costly futility of building new roads in a sprawling landscape.

Given the increasing expense - public and private - of our state's auto-centric transportation policies, the Legislature should include strong stipulations that the next Turnpike construction project, planned between Scarborough and Falmouth, will substantially diversify our region's portfolio of transportation alternatives.

First, and most importantly, the Legislature should require that the Turnpike Authority base its planning on the efficient movement of people and freight - not just vehicles - throughout the Turnpike corridor and surrounding communities.

By the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Turnpike Authority will be required to examine a range of alternatives in the widening project. In accordance with the Maine Sensible Transportation Policy Act, the Legislature should stipulate that EVERY alternative under consideration (besides the required "no action" alternative) include some combination of regional rail investments, expanded and new commuter bus (ZOOM) services, HOV and HOT lanes, and bike/pedestrian trails.

NEPA also requires that federally-funded projects examine "cumulative effects," i.e., effects beyond the immediate scope of any project. In this case, the Legislature should make clear that the Turnpike Authority must weigh alternatives according to their effects on nearby arterials and town centers. Local and state agencies should not bear additional costs or congestion as a result of the Authority's actions.

I will close by reminding you that automotive costs are beginning to rival housing expenditures among Maine households, and that traffic on the Turnpike alone generates more air pollution than all of the state's power plants combined. Please encourage the Turnpike Authority to make 21st-century investments in true mobility, rather than another 20th-century road

Yours sincerely,

Christian McNeil

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Congestion charging for novices (i.e., for Maine)

One of the recommendations of the Brookings Institution's Action Plan for Maine is to "export" our tax burden: to find ways in which we can get people "from away" to help pay for the things that make Maine worth visiting.

One way to accomplish this, and to alleviate a major hassle for summer tourists, is to implement congestion charging on the Maine Turnpike during peak summer weekends. Tolls should increase according to traffic: if traffic is light and moving smoothly, tolls should remain at 60 cents; if traffic is heavy and congested, tolls should increase to whatever price will discourage too many additional motorists from using the highway - for relatively price-inelastic weekend travellers, this price could get as high as $10, or even higher. This policy would not only alleviate traffic on the Turnpike (drivers would be more likely to ride the bus or a train, or to travel during off-peak hours); it would also generate revenue that could be used to relieve other taxes, or to bolster alternative transportation like Amtrak's Downeaster.

To be really effective, variable pricing should also apply to Maine vehicles - after all, locals have better knowledge of alternative routes, and we generally have little reason or desire to travel on the Turnpike on summer weekends. Still, to make it more politically palatable, the Turnpike Authority could allow a 50% discount for Maine vehicles when traffic drives the tolls beyond a certain point (like $2).

Unfortunately, any sort of variable pricing policy is currently illegal, since the state legislature passed a law that forbade peak-hour price increases right before the Turnpike Authority was to begin an experimental pilot project in 1995. But that was 12 years ago: we've now seen examples of how variable tolling can succeed in places like California, Houston, and (on a larger scale) London and Stockholm.

In 1995, the Legislature reacted to concerns that tourists would be "insulted" by increased weekend tolls. But what's really more insulting: a $10 toll (that's the going price for driving in and out of New York City, by the way), or a five-hour traffic jam? I'm pretty sure that most of our tourists would prefer the former.

A Prague Spring for Auto Socialism?

These are not the best of times for American motorist. Diminishing supplies of oil are increasing the costs of gasoline and pavement, increasing demand for livable downtowns makes highway construction and parking more and more expensive, and concerns about global warming threaten to drive up the true costs of driving even further.

Of course, the typical American motorist is blithely unaware of most of these problems. Sure, gas is more expensive, but government subsidies still keep the price of oil ridiculously low. Similarly, local, state, and federal governments spend trillions on highways that are essentially free for motorists to use, and every city in America has policies and land use codes that provide price-controlled (i.e., "free") parking. Supposedly we can't afford national free health care, but few people seem to notice how much our governments spend on nationalised roads and free parking.

As these twentieth-century traditions of automotive socialism become more and more expensive to the governments and taxpayers that pay for them, economists are becoming increasingly vocal in their support for free-market solutions to congestion, parking, and global warming.

Lest you think that this is some sort of left-wing luddite conspiracy, please note that the Bush administration is endorsing congestion pricing as "the centerpiece of [its] traffic plan," and that this and another story on liberalized parking-meter pricing were both published not in Mother Jones but in the Wall Street Journal.

Motorists actually have a good deal to gain from free-market traffic and parking policies. In our current, socialized scheme, drivers spend hours in gridlock or searching for an empty parking space: a car will rush for an empty freeway lane or curbside parking spot faster than a babushka at a Soviet supermarket. If drivers paid a fair price to use the streets, the money spent subsidizing private vehicles could pay for efficient mass transit instead, more urban land could be used for housing and businesses instead of for vehicle storage, and those who really need to drive would contend with less traffic to get to their destinations more quickly.

London has led the way with the world's first major congestion pricing initiative, and New York City is considering the idea seriously. Meanwhile, parking price reforms are gaining all over the place, from Silicon Valley to Houston, where the one and only land-use regulation (for now) is one that requires free parking.

For now, small reforms, like letting employees opt out of free parking in exchange for cash, are more feasable than citywide congestion-pricing revolutions. Future posts in the new "Socialized Motoring" file will investigate how such ideas might apply to Portland and Maine.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Ski Portland!

Some old buddies from New Hampshire arrived to visit on Friday night, and they kindly brought four inches of fresh snow (and bacon). Tom, an old hutman and current researcher for the Observatory, and I spent most of Saturday afternoon skiing the hills and trails on the Eastern Prom. We spent most of our time on the short, steeper pitch by the playground, where we had to wait our turn among a small crowd of sledders before we had a chance to link three or four quick turns (plus a small jump at the end). But we also explored, skiing cross-country out to the railroad trestle to the north and around to the Portland Company complex to the south, and finding a few lines of untracked powder on the hills in between. The slope between the street and the ocean is short and not terribly steep, but how many ski runs end on a beach? It was only about 25 degrees out, but we got suntans anyway.

Jess skis off into the sunset.
Skiers less concerned with scenery can find a hill with grander aspirations on the other side of town, at the Western Prom. New Hampshire's Mount Washington is visible from the top on clear days, which lends this ski run more of an alpine flavor. It's also longer and steeper, although you'll have to watch out for the plowed walkway that traverses the hill in switchbacks. This is a good place to ski off into the sunset at the end of the day (see photo).

All in all, this weekend's skiing was as about as good as any I did last winter at Carter Notch. Global warming got you down? Don't burn gas on your way to the mountains - ski Portland!

Friday, February 02, 2007

Climate change isn't real - don't you have to drive someplace?

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported today [BBC news story here] that climate change is merely "very likely" to have a human cause. Which means that somewhere between "very likely" and "certainly" there is a possibility (with a probability of about 0.10, according to scientific understanding at this point) that humans might have nothing to do with rising temperatures and the floods, famines, and hurricanes that accompany them.

Never mind the fact that the "likelihood" of human-induced climate change has been converging towards certainty in recent years as climate science becomes more sophisticated. Just keep on burning that gasoline, preferably bought from your local Exxon Mobil dealer. It's merely "very likely" that hundreds of millions will die or become refugees because of your well-deserved lifestyle.

[Yo, Exxon-Mobil and the American Enterprise Institute: please send my check for $10,000 to: Christian McNeil, c/o The Vigorous North, Portland, ME. I am also available to conduct a pan-European lecture tour in exchange for a generous advance and expense account.]