The Universal Notebook: Don't throw the public under the bus

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Apparently, the Maine Department of Transportation has been conducting something called the Portland North Alternative Modes Transportation Study since 2008, studying whether to link either Lewiston-Auburn or Bath-Brunswick by either commuter passenger rail or rapid transit buses. Of course, we wouldn’t know that by reading local newspapers.

Other than a Press Herald report on the study last week, albeit one that did not name the study or provide any context, the only newspaper article I can find on the study is an April 15, 2008, report in the Lewiston Sun Journal. The goal of the project, being pursued under the Federal Transit Authority’s Small Starts program, is to take 1,000 cars a day off Maine highways.

You’d think that with the DOT considering whether to establish 11 round trips a day via commuter rail or bus between Portland and Bath-Brunswick or Portland and Lewiston-Auburn, there would be a lot of public interest and involvement. But this sweeping public transportation scheme seems to have been flying below the radar these past two years.

The Press Herald article gave the impression that DOT had to make a decision by July on which route and mode of transportation to pursue – not much of a window for public input. But Sue Moreau of DOT’s Office of Passenger Transportation said the Portland North project is still “very, very preliminary.”

DOT has just been studying the feasibility of establishing some sort of commuter system, according to Moreau, and now it is entering the next round of Small Starts grant applications, looking for funds to work up some designs and preliminary engineering studies. At this “very, very preliminary” stage, MDOT has tentatively decided that the coastal route to Bath-Brunswick would generate more riders (860 a day at startup) than the L-A route (589) and that bus routes would be cheaper ($19 million) than commuter rail ($127 million).

Maine just won $35 million in federal stimulus money to extend the Amtrak Downeaster service from Portland to Brunswick, so you’d think rail would be the way to go. But, despite the fact that both the Downeaster and any new commuter train would be using the same tracks, Sue Moreau says the 22-trip commuter train is a ‘very different project” from the twice-daily Downeaster.

The Portland North study has been looking for what it terms “fatal flaws” in the various public transit options. Right off the top of my head I can think of one fatal flaw – getting run over by a bus. Because the federal Small Starts program requires either fixed guideway (rail) systems or dedicated bus lanes, DOT is thinking of turning the Interstate 295 breakdown lane into a bus lane. Pull over to fix a flat and you’d run the risk of being rear-ended by a busload of coastal commuters.

Moreau was pretty clear that DOT is not proposing to widen I-295 to accommodate a bus lane. But as to where motorists in distress might pull over if the breakdown lane becomes a bus lane, she said, “We haven’t gotten that far into this. There would need to be some accommodation made.” DOT also hasn’t gotten as far as figuring out who would run a bus service from Portland to Bath.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for improving public transportation. But I’m also all for greater public involvement in public transportation policy decisions. In fact, DOT currently has a draft Public Involvement Plan on its Web site. Public comments on the public involvement plan are due by April 23. Here’s my comment: Start by getting local folks involved a heck of a lot earlier in the process. Don’t throw the public under the bus.

A public hearing on the Portland North plan will be held in Portland in late April.

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The Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s personal look at the world around him.