Commuters: Do as Portland City Hall says, not as it does

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PORTLAND — Officials called a press conference last week to announce the launch of a website designed to encourage fewer single-occupant vehicle trips into downtown.

The website, TDM2go.org, is designed to make it easier for smaller businesses to offer incentives for employees who carpool, bike, walk, telecommute or take the bus to work.

Developments of 50,000 square feet or more that will add more than 100 employees or students are already required to submit traffic demand management plans to the city. Officials hope that smaller businesses will now voluntarily tackle the problem.

But when it comes to encouraging alternative modes of transportation, City Hall isn’t setting a good example: each get a free parking spot in the city-owned Chestnut Street parking garage.

City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said the only incentive offered to entice city employees out of their cars is a monthly bus pass offered in lieu of the free parking.

Only 12 employees take advantage of the program, Clegg said, while 130 other employees drive to work. She did not know how many of those employees use their vehicles on the job.

Mayor Nicholas Mavodones Jr., who was among the speakers at last week’s press conference, said single-occupant vehicle trips add to congestion and unnecessary engine idling.

“The simple fact of the matter is driving yourself to work everyday gets expensive,” Mavodones said. “Maintaining a car and keeping your tank full isn’t just a hit to the wallet; it’s also a hit to the environment and the health of our community.”

Mavodones said this week that the city should be doing whatever it can to lead by example.

About 17,000 vehicles use the peninsula every weekday, according to Judy Harris, the city’s transportation director.

According to the TDM2go website, a 2011 report from the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that urban commuters can save up to $778 a month by getting rid of their cars and using public transportation.

John Duncan, executive director of the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, which helped develop the website, said the cost will rise if gas prices increase.

Councilor Kevin Donoghue said creating a traffic management plan for City Hall was a short-term recommendation of the city’s Peninsula Transit Study. It has been on the Transportation Committee’s radar for more than a year, he said. 

“It has remained on the work plan of the Transportation Committee for well over a year, but staff resources have not been allocated to implement this city policy,” said Donoghue, who leads the committee.

The TDM2go website, which was funded by a $16,000 federal grant and $4,000 in city funds, is designed to be a step-by-step guide to creating a traffic demand management, or TDM, plan for small businesses.

One of the most important steps in creating a TDM plan is surveying employees about their needs and wants. Then, tangible goals must be set.

Once a plan is implemented, it must be marketed and monitored regularly to ensure its effectiveness.

Maine Medical Center, which employs about 4,500 people in the West End, was held up as an example of a successful plan. The hospital received the city’s first “Golden Gas Cap” award from Mavodones for its efforts.

MMC Senior Manager Steven Hobart said the hospital was required to develop a TDM when it built its east tower, parking garage and helicopter pad.

Hobart said it took MMC months to develop the plan, which has reached all of its goals, he said. 

“It was received better than we thought it would be,” he said.

Hobart said MMC relies mainly on carpooling. But Donoghue said the city should explore parking payouts, where employees would receive the value of their parking space in cash.

“A parking cash-out can unlock the employee demand for commuter alternatives and for accommodations for commuters such as showers and secure bicycle storage inside or outside City Hall,” he said.

“With a new leadership team taking the reigns come November, I am hopeful we can make transportation a priority and implement TDM,” he added.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings.

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