The Late Bus is Coming Soon

Bike on Bus

We all get excited about presidential elections, but local government is where the action is. As I have written in this space before, the members of the Bangor City Council have more immediate impact on my life than the occupant of the Oval Office.

Case in point: While the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (better known as the Obama stimulus package) provided funds for a few new Community Connector buses, only the Bangor City Council can extend the operating hours.

And after last Wednesday’s budget workshop at City Hall, this council seems to be committed to getting it done. The meeting brought out a crowd of bus supporters. They heard a majority of the council approve the idea – if not yet the funding – of later evening hours.

I left the meeting filled with cautious optimism. All seven of the nine councilors present expressed support for later bus hours. It’s going to happen. As councilor Nelson Durgin said, “We’ve reached a point where we can’t go back. Let’s put our heads together and work on this.”

I also gained a sense of appreciation for the work involved in getting even modest proposals enacted. Bus supporters, including me, have been lobbying for later hours for some time. The group Transportation For All brought a dozen or more people to the meeting, and handed the council a petition signed by local residents.

But as councilor Gibran Graham reminded us, agitating is the easy part. There’s more to consider beyond the obvious need for more money to pay more drivers for more hours. For instance, the buses that run all day are currently serviced between 7 and 11 at night. Pushing the hours back two hours also pushes back the service time. Extra hours means keeping the downtown bus depot open longer, and more hours for dispatchers, and so on. Someone has to clean the buses on a regular basis. The fleet itself is aging.

Still, the will to do it is there. A real city should have a real public transportation system, and the members of this council seem to be on board. A viable bus system running in the evening, as council chair Sean Faircloth pointed out, helps stimulate the local economy. “There’s a business value to getting folks downtown at night,” he said. Councilor Joe Baldacci said longer bus hours will make Bangor more attractive to people contemplating a move here.

The cost to extend all routes in the system by two hours – until 9 p.m. – is an estimated $203,492. Finance director Deb Cyr said that money is not yet in the budget. But some of it could be recouped from savings in fuel costs. The Community Connector locks in its fuel prices a year in advance, and prices are substantially lower than last year.

But councilors also urged patience. “We need to commit to a plan,” Baldacci said. That plan would include less expensive but equally necessary things like a larger and better Community Connector office, and improvements to the waiting area downtown. Councilor Ben Sprague noted that the council has heard from many groups abut the need for downtown public restrooms, not just at the bus station.

Sprague and Baldacci both floated the possibility of trial runs, over a few routes for a limited time. This makes a certain amount of sense. As a regular bus passenger, I can tell you that some routes are more heavily used than others, and at different times of the day. But I would also caution the council not to pull the plug too quickly if the new hours don’t immediately entice large numbers of new riders.

It’s hard to take something away from the public – though that didn’t stop the city from prematurely killing the Odlin Road route, nor did it stop Hampden’s town council from sacrificing the Saturday bus to its petty spat with Bangor. If it takes the time it needs to establish a comprehensive plan for expanding the bus hours, then the council should also commit to the plan, long-term, once it’s implemented.

It’s even harder to influence changes in personal habits. We live in a society where every incentive is to drive. Persuading a significant percentage of the population out of their cars is long, hard work, but it’s worth doing right, and it’s worth paying for. The reward: more attractive pedestrian-friendly communities, a robust economy in which everyone isn’t driving to work to make the car payment, and a healthy natural environment.

The Community Connector hours are going to be extended. Not right away, maybe not even this year, but soon. Like most lasting changes, it’s happening incrementally. Public transportation is the future, and the future starts now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do We Need Another Highway?

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“If you build it, they will come.”

Constructing a baseball field for the use of ghosts involves a giant leap of faith. But extending an interstate highway further into the hinterlands requires something more like denial.

I’m writing this week about the proposed extension of Interstate 395 here in the Greater Bangor region. The project has been on the drawing board for 16 years, and has taken on seeming unstoppable momentum. It calls for approximately six miles of new four-lane divided highway between the present end of I-395 in Brewer to join with Route 9 in Eddington.

The project carries an estimated price tag of $61 million. Eight homes will be displaced, and another 54 properties in Brewer, Holden and Eddington will be affected. The rationale for the road, according to the Bangor Daily News, is to “ease heavy truck traffic and improve safety on nearby routes 46 and 1A, while also creating a more direct link from Canada to the U.S. Highway system.” The route is slated for completion in 2025.

The only problem with this logic is that it won’t happen. No road yet built has ever, in the long term, eased traffic. If you build it, they will come.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s true. “For decades, traffic engineers have observed the capacity of more highways to simply breed more traffic,” wrote Jane Holtz Kay in her 1997 book Asphalt Nation. More roads encourage more people to drive, at a rate faster than new roads can be constructed. You can’t build your way out of traffic congestion.

Has Interstate 395, for example, eased traffic on the Brewer strip? Getting from Bangor to Bar Harbor on a summer day is still an automotive gauntlet. Widening the road in places has not alleviated the congestion. It has encouraged people to drive faster, making the road notorious for periodic horrific accidents. And the bypassed strip seems busier than ever.

Writing for the energy and environmental website Vox, Joseph Stromberg succinctly summarizes the problem: drivers don’t pay for the roads. More than half of all road costs come out of general taxes. New road construction is a massive government subsidy for the owners of cars and trucks. People (and companies) choose to drive because their government encourages them to.

Back in my youth, I had a job for the Ellsworth American, which at that time printed many of the small weekly newspapers in eastern and northern Maine. One of my duties was to drive up to Dexter twice a week – first to pick up the “flats” that would be photographed and turned into plates for the American’s then state-of-the-art offset press system, then, two days later, to deliver the printed papers. This was before Interstate 395 was built. I used to make a game of driving through Brewer and Bangor, hitting as many green lights as possible. Eleven traffic lights interrupted the route between the beginning of the Brewer strip and the end of Outer Broadway on the far side of Bangor. There are more lights today, and bypassing the strip via the interstate does not enable you to avoid all of them.

One might argue that the Brewer strip would be even more crowded today had the bridge and the interstate never been built. But that is at least debatable. Those same public dollars could have been invested in a light-rail system linking Bangor and Bar Harbor, for example, or better bus service, or both. Sinking money into roads delays the day when we can begin to move away from the dominance of cars and trucks toward a more integrated and diversified transportation system.

The most efficient way to move freight is by intermodal transport, in which the same container fits on a ship, a train, and a truck. Rail remains the most efficient way to move freight, especially heavy cargoes, over long distances. The Maine Department of Transportation estimates that one freight train can do the work of 280 trucks.

We don’t have an insufficiency of road capacity; we have an overabundance of vehicles. Doesn’t it make sense to pursue policies that will reduce the number of cars and trucks on our roads, rather than encourage more of them? A generation from now, we can either have more highways and more trucks, or the beginnings of a more efficient and cost-effective transportation system.

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Next Wednesday, April 27, the Bangor City Council will discuss the budget for the Community Connector bus system and the extension of bus hours later into the evening. The meeting takes place at 5:15 on the third floor of City Hall, and is open to the public.

A Race Best Seen From A Bicycle

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A harbinger of spring more reliable than Easter or the Vernal Equinox, the Kenduskeag Steam Canoe Race surges through Bangor this Saturday. It’s among my favorite events of the year. It happens only once, and it marks the divide in the mind’s calendar that puts winter indisputably behind us. After the canoe race, it’s spring for good.

Though I’m a sailor, not a paddler, I love everything about this race: the history, the costumes, the war canoes, the kayaks, the action at Six Mile Falls, the people out along the Kenduskeag Trail watching the racers approach the finish line. I don’t particularly care who wins or loses. No, the most important thing is that it’s spring, and people are outside en masse, maybe for the first time all year.

This year’s forecast calls for sunny skies and mild temperatures – good weather for both paddling and bicycling, which is the best way to see the race. The best thing about bicycling is that you can slide past the parked cars on all sides of Six Mile Falls. If you drive, unless you get there early, you could find yourself spending as much time walking as watching the race.

Still, most people do drive. In my years of river-vulturing, I’ve never seen more than a handful of bicyclists out at Six Mile Falls, or anywhere along the route. Which is too bad, because on a bike you are much more mobile, and can see more of the race. A bicycle travels only marginally faster than a canoe, can stop anywhere, and doesn’t require a parking space.

Nonetheless, canoe racing is, by its nature, a car-intensive sport. You need a vehicle to take the canoe to the start and pick it up at the finish. Presumably many of the cars at Six Mile Falls are such support vehicles. Families with small children have little choice but to come by car. More than a few dogs accompany their owners along the riverbanks; they likely did not get there by running alongside a bicycle.

In 2010, I decided to find out just how many cars there were in the area around Six Mile Falls. At eleven-thirty, approximately mid-race, I took an informal count. From my bicycle I counted 207 cars on both sides of Route 15 north of the bridge, 146 on the side of Route 231 where parking was allowed, and 196 on Route 15 south of the bridge. The Advent Christian Church lot held approximately another hundred; a small side street north of the bridge accommodated another 60 or so. That adds up to more than 700 cars, and some people had already left to follow the race downstream.

How many of those vehicles would a shuttle bus service, run by the city or a private entity or a combination of both, remove from the mix? It seems like a simple thing to set up. Buses could leave from the Airport Mall or the Broadway Shopping Center for Six Mile Falls every half hour during the race. The Capehart route goes as far as Finson Road; maybe race spectators could make a connection to the Falls there.

Perhaps there would be no appreciable difference in traffic, at first. People are used to driving. But it’s an idea at least worth putting on the table, isn’t it? What role can public transportation play in alleviating Bangor’s traffic congestion?

(I confess my tongue is partway in my cheek here. I lived in San Diego from 1983 to 1999. Bangor does not have traffic congestion, at least not in the Californian sense.)

Nonetheless, I’d like to see public buses available for this and other events: concerts at the Waterfront, University of Maine hockey games, elections and caucuses. Traffic gets worse when driving is the only option.

But I’m not trying to throw cold water on one of the most fun events of the year. I’ll be out there on my bicycle enjoying the spills and the sunshine. I doubt I’ll be having as much fun as the participants, though. It makes me want to get a canoe and try the race myself.

One of these years, I’m going to do it – even if I have to prevail upon someone with a car to help me get there.

 

Why Put the Bus Depot in the Path of a Flood?

 

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I suppose I should write about baseball, since the season’s started, amid rainouts and snow-outs and two good games between last year’s World Series contestants. But the wind is yowling outside my office window as I write; rain mixes with a dab of snow, all hurtling sideways. A can bangs around in the wind on the roof of the next building over. The sky is the color of chipped silver radiator paint. It doesn’t feel like baseball weather.

From my window I can see the Kenduskeag Stream, confined between two concrete banks, and the back of the parking garage that fronts onto Pickering Square. The city has closed this area to parking tonight. One or two inches of rain are expected in the storm, on top of an already high tide close to the new moon. The National Weather Service has issued a flood warning for much of the area.

The Kenduskeag is hemmed in here, at its confluence with the river. The water has no place to go but up. The parking lot behind the parking garage is the first place to flood in a storm. And while Bangor is not South Florida, it happens often enough.

This parking lot is where the Community Connector buses will pick up passengers at the downtown hub in the future, under a plan being considered by the city council that will re-make Pickering Square. The first meeting on the plan took place earlier this week, as reported by Nick McCrea of the Bangor Daily News.

I have to wonder at the symbolism, intentional or not, of siting the bus terminal at the lowest point in town.

Tanya Emery, Bangor’s economic development director, said the plan’s architects wanted to separate the uses of the space at the front of the parking garage, where currently drivers and pedestrians and bus passengers interact with occasional confusion. Fair enough. But I worry about the perception. Why put the central bus stop where bus passengers will be the first people displaced when the water rises? It’s bad imagery, if nothing else.

I worry, too, about the bus stop becoming neglected out behind the parking garage, while the city focuses its efforts on the square. Will there be any amenities back there? Any places to sit, any outdoor benches? Will the waiting area appear even less welcoming than the current one, a place, in the public mind, to be avoided?

A city’s attention to its public transportation system reflects its values. I ride the Community Connector more than 300 times a year, and will sing its praises to the rafters. It’s convenient, safe, pleasant and reliable. Bangor has a good bus service.

But it could be better. And it would be better, if public decisions like the location of the bus terminal encouraged more people to ride. Public transportation works when it becomes popular. It becomes popular when it becomes attractive. And it becomes attractive when public officials dedicate public resources to make it so.

On June 8, Bangor will play host to Ringo Starr and his All-Stars at the Cross Center and the Dave Matthews Band at the Waterfront. It’s going to be madness. It’s going to be a cluster crunch of cars. I wouldn’t want to be driving in or near Bangor that day. Where is everybody going to park?

When you take the Concord Trailways bus to Portland, you arrive at a convenient station connected to other buses, trains, and the local bus system. The Community Connector isn’t hooked with any of the three long-distance bus services that serve Bangor. You can take the bus to Portland, hop on the number 5 bus to a Sea Dogs baseball game, go out for a bite downtown, and grab the local bus back to the station in time for the return trip to Bangor, all without using a car. But you can’t do anything like that when you come up to Bangor for a concert.

With a little foresight, Bangor can develop a public transportation hub downtown linked to all available bus services. Ideally it should be near the Cross Center, the Waterfront, and downtown businesses. The city could employ a local shuttle bus, similar to the Black Bear Shuttle in Orono, with a small route and frequent service. The Greyhound Lines could be encouraged to return from its exile in Hermon, out of the Community Connector’s reach.

Public transportation is one of the best investments a city can make. One bus can remove dozens of cars from the traffic and parking mix. Buses make cities more pleasant places to live and work. They ought to be kept visible, and out of the way of the flood.

Does Welfare for Cars Kill Walking Neighborhoods?

 

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On the same day last week, two of my favorite local businesses announced that they were closing. State Street Wine Cellar and Bottles and Cans on Main Street will have shut their doors for good by the time you read this.

Meanwhile, the Family Dollar store on the corner of State and Broadway, gutted by fire last year, will reopen sometime this summer. But down by the river, the site of my former favorite hardware store remains vacant.

For a number of reasons, it remains difficult to maintain a viable, pedestrian-based, diversified downtown business district, in Bangor, and similar small American cities. Stick a compass at City Hall, draw a circle with a radius no longer than a modest walk – say, half a mile. How many goods and services can you find within that circle? How many groceries, office supplies, housewares, tools?

It isn’t lost on me that both businesses that are closing specialized in the sale of alcoholic beverages, and that plenty of options remain for those seeking to buy a nice bottle of wine or a six-pack of craft beer. But it’s sad to lose two businesses whose proprietors knew me on a first-name basis and could recommend products I might like. More poignantly, both businesses catered to foot traffic and didn’t require swaths of land for parked cars.

Maybe the sad truth is that pedestrian-based businesses can’t do enough volume to survive in today’s car-driven economy. The owners of Bottles and Cans, for example, tried selling food (fresh vegetables, butter, eggs, e.g) in addition to beer and wine, but found themselves donating the bulk of the food to charitable organizations when it went unsold. Most of us have become conditioned to grocery stores such as Shaw’s or Hannaford, with large parking lots and without the slightest incentive to shop on foot or by bicycle.

All that parking at the supermarket is, of course, paid for by everyone who shops there. Since most customers drive, it doesn’t seem discriminatory that the prices are the same for drivers as they are for walkers, bicyclists, and bus passengers. To level the playing field, anyone who arrives at the store by some other means than a car should receive a coupon for a small discount, say, two to three percent off the total at the cash register. I’m not holding my breath.

I tried one summer to shop at only pedestrian-friendly businesses: the downtown farmers’ market, a local bakery, a walkable pharmacy and beer store. The empty hardware store still leaves a hole, in my heart as well as the downtown business district. There isn’t a good office supply store. And nobody can seem to make a go of selling groceries on a small scale.

This is what subsidized parking hath wrought.

Parking is inevitably the first or second item on the agenda at any of the public meetings I’ve sporadically attended. The parking garage at Pickering Square, which offers the first two hours free, is seldom full. The distance from the parking garage to Main Street is often less than from a parking space at the Mall to the door. Yet people balk at one and embrace the other. Why? On the rare occasions that I do drive downtown, I seldom have trouble finding a place to park. Everything is a short walk from everything else.

But most car owners operate on the premise that parking should be free, and available on demand. It is undeniably more convenient to use your car when you get free services for doing so. A drive-through cup of coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts costs not a penny more than a cup for which you walk in and pay over the counter.

The unfortunate result of this welfare for cars is that it’s created a culture of dependency. As more downtown businesses close, it becomes even more necessary to get into a car in order to obtain the basics of life. Rather than setting us free, our cars have made us their prisoners.

Driving (and owning a car) is incentivized in countless little ways, throughout the American day, the American culture, and the American economy. But it’s possible, I think, to create incentives that go the other way. Stores could offer coupons for shoppers who don’t use cars. The city could offer tax breaks to businesses with a high percentage of foot traffic, and take the long-overdue step of extending evening bus hours.

I’m sorry to see two favorite local businesses close. But as long as we continue to subsidize cars, walking communities will continue to be commercially challenged.