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

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