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Picking Portland's mayor: The candidates on transportation, energy policy

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Picking Portland's mayor: The candidates on transportation, energy policy

Fourth in a weekly series on where Portland's mayoral candidates stand on issues facing the city.

PORTLAND — Mayoral candidates this week offered their ideas to improve the city's public transportation system, which many called inconvenient, unreliable and inefficient.

Candidates also shared their ideas of making Portland a more sustainable and energy-efficient city.

METRO currently operates eight routes throughout Portland and into Westbrook, Falmouth and the Maine Mall area of South Portland. Its nine-member board of directors includes five Portland members.

Its $6.1 million operating budget comes comes largely from government subsidies – $2.8 million in municipal, $1.3 in federal and $85,000 from the state, according to METRO spokeswoman Denise Beck.

Beck said ridership, which has grown from 1.35 million in 2005 to 1.44 million last year,  accounts for less than a third, or $1.9 million, of METRO's revenue.

Candidates to be Portland's first popularly elected mayor in 88 years said more needs to be done to make public transportation a viable option for city residents.

City Councilor David Marshall, a Green-Independent, said METRO should pursue mobile technology that allows riders to track buses in real time. He said he would also push for electronic signs to display up-to-the-minute bus arrivals.

Marshall, 33, said he would also like to establish a streetcar system, similar to one in Portland, Ore., and light rail connecting Portland to Windham and Lewiston. He would seek regional funding as well as grants and federal highway funds to set it up, and create transit tax increment finance districts around the routes to pay for operations.

"It's a great economic development tool," he said. "Where ever the street car was installed (in Oregon), they got  really strong urban development within a couple of blocks."

Jed Rathband, a Democrat, also supports mobile tracking technology for city buses, but spoke against what he called "the snobbery" that suggests more expensive forms of public transportation are needed. The 39-year-old said the city can better market its public transit options, and should stop subsidizing parking structures and invest that into improving METRO.

Former state Rep. John Eder, a Green-Independent, said high school students should be able to ride METRO to and from school for free. He said that would get them in the habit of using public transportation, and increase future ridership and revenues. It would also save the school district money, he said.

Regionally, Eder said he would work to consolidate the South Portland Bus Service with METRO and establish a ZOOM bus to Lewiston.

Democrat Jodie Lapchick said she agrees with Eder's proposal for high school students; so did former Democratic State Rep. Ethan Strimling. Lapchick said the city is taking the right steps to be a bike- and pedestrian-friendly city.

Lapchick, 49, said the city should establish parking lots at places, like marginal Way, where commuters can drop off their cars and be shuttled downtown on vans.

Like most candidates, former State Sen. Michael Brennan, a Democrat,  said METRO bus routes need to be re-evaluated. He said he also supports working to consolidate the South Portland service with METRO. He would also like to work with businesses to open up their parking lots to the public when they are not being used, to make it easier for people to go downtown on weekends.

Portland is on the cusp of being able to incorporate light rail at inter-modal hubs, Brennan, 58, said, but the city needs to work regionally towards that end.

Strimling, 43, said the only way to increase METRO ridership is by increasing downtown density with economic development. A re-evaluation of routes and more public education is also needed, he said.

Markos Miller, unenrolled, said the city should use land use planning to support transit services, noting Bayside's vision as a model of transit-oriented development. People should be able to take public transit to portions of the city and get what they need, rather getting in their cars, he said.

As mayor, Miller, 43, said he would bring "critical, thoughtful analysis" to transit projects. He noted his efforts to stop the proposed widening of Franklin Street and the proposed addition of a travel lane on Interstate 295.

METRO also needs to refocus its routes on transportation corridors, rather than trying to provide "front-door service," said Miller, who also supports a city program where developers can pay the city a fee, rather than building parking spaces.

Democrat Ralph Carmona, 60, said adding affordable housing within the city would help increase ridership. He said he would also consider a "congestion fee" for people who frequently drive into the city. He'd also advocate for the state to reduce paving expenditures, in favor of funding alternative transportation.

Christopher Vail, unenrolled, said it is unrealistic to talk about streetcars and light rail. He said METRO buses, sometimes carrying only six passengers, are too big, so the whole system should be re-evaluated.

Instead, the city should create satellite lots for the roughly 60,000 weekday commuters and bus them into town, said Vail, 40. The city should also better synchronize traffic lights to move traffic more efficiently, he said.

City Councilor and Mayor Nicholas Mavodones Jr., a Democrat, said the proposed Thompson's Point development next to the Portland Transportation Center will help reduce the number of vehicles on the road. From there, visitors will be able to be shuttled to the airport and downtown, the 51-year-old said. 

Councilor Jill Duson, a Democrat, noted the city's efforts to improve bike and pedestrian accessibility. She said she is also was excited by the Thompson's Point TIF, which will fund public transit. "It wasn't my idea, but it was a great idea," the 57-year-old said.

Republican Richard Dodge said a "top-to-bottom" evaluation of METRO is needed to find efficiencies. He would advocate for smaller, more efficient 15- to 18-passenger buses. He'd also explore the privatization of METRO, if services could be delivered more efficiently.

Charles Bragdon, 43, unenrolled, said METRO routes should be redesigned so people don't have to walk as far to bus stops.

Energy policy

City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said the city, which has a $201 million budget, last year spent nearly $860,000 on heating oil, $167,000 on natural gas and $2.6 million on electricity – expenditures that don't include schools.

Clegg noted the city has hired Amersco to make $8 million in energy efficiency upgrades identified in an energy audit, including the transition from oil to natural gas.

Cost savings will vary depending on prices, but Clegg said the city should experience a 34 percent drop in its carbon footprint.

All of the candidates cited the need to make city buildings more energy efficient and said the city should increase residential weatherization efforts, when feasible. 

But candidates differed on their views of alternative energy sources, such as wind, solar and tidal power generation, within the city. 

Lapchick and Vail said city should be open to large and small wind turbines, while Bragdon and Dodge spoke against turbines. Lapchick said she would like to require all new buildings, public and private, to achieve green certification.

Eder and Marshall said they were open to small-scale wind units, but Miller said more research is needed.

Eder said the city should use a revolving loan program to help residents pay for weatherization. That bond should also fund solar panels and small wind turbines on city buildings, he said.

The city should also explore "methane digesters" at its landfill in an effort to generate power, Eder said, noting the city needs to make investments into becoming energy reliant.

Miller said he'd seek lower energy costs by creating a collective of businesses and/or residents to purchase electricity at wholesale prices from the grid. The city should also create "microloans" for residential weatherization, he said.

Marshall said he has a 13-year plan to ween the city off oil. He'd like to encourage residents to tap into Unitil's natural gas lines while they are being replaced throughout the city. He would help finance that conversion, including energy audits, through grants and a revolving loan fund.

Mavodones said a recent trip to Germany introduced him to green technologies that may be viable in Portland, including green roofs and combined heat-power units. He acknowledged he lacked expertise, but said he would consider testing these technologies on city buildings.

Brennan said he would like to make public financing available to increase the energy efficiency of hospitals, which provide a public service. He would encourage private developers to build green-certified buildings, but would stop short of requiring certification.

In the short term, however, Brennan said the mayor needs to advocate at the federal level for heating assistance programs, which are threatened by budget cuts.

Strimling, the CEO of LearningWorks, said the city needs to "walk the walk" when it comes to energy efficiency. He said "we need to find more funding" for programs like LearningWorks' weatherization programs, which educate students and make low-income homes more efficient.

Rathband said he'd like to offer a one-time, $100 tax rebate for residents who take a home weatherization course through Portland Adult Education or Southern Maine Community College. He said efficiency is "the lowest of low-hanging fruit," and more public education is needed.

Carmona said he'd advocate for tidal power investments, and for the federal government to reallocate coal and oil subsidies towards alternative energy. Vail, Bragdon and Dodge also noted the potential for tidal power in Portland. Dodge would also explore solar power on city buildings.

Duson said she would being a municipal perspective to federal energy and environmental policy.

Hamza Haadoow and Peter Bryant did not respond to requests for comment.

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