Wednesday, June 19, 2013
PORTLAND – City councilors hope to move forward on a study of two major commuter roads that slice across Portland's downtown peninsula.
But with no state or federal funding lined up, the $150,000 cost of the study would have to be covered by property taxes, at a time when money is scarce.
"There are going to be a lot of competing interests in the budget," Mayor Michael Brennan said Thursday. "We're going to have to spend some time talking about what our priorities are."
State and High streets are one-way arterials that carry traffic between Interstate 295 and the Casco Bay Bridge. With the support of neighborhood groups, councilors are looking to make both streets two-way to make them more bike- and pedestrian-friendly.
The council's Transportation Committee voted in favor of the study this week. Public Services Director Michael Bobinsky said the project has been included in the Public Services budget submitted to City Manager Mark Rees.
Rees is expected to review budget requests before sending a 2013-2014 spending plan to the council's Finance Committee.
Under the state budget proposed by Gov. Paul LePage, Portland stands to lose millions in revenue. The governor's plan to suspend state revenue-sharing with municipalities, among other cuts, would force the city to cut services or increase property taxes.
But City Councilor David Marshall, who leads the Transportation Committee, said he expects that funding for the traffic study will be in the next municipal budget.
"When you're talking about a $150,000 expenditure inside a $260-plus million budget, it would represent a very small portion of the overall budget," Marshall said.
The city has already spent about $16,000 studying the conversion of State and High streets.
A preliminary study showed that the streets carried about 1,000 vehicles an hour during the peak evening commute last summer, but that traffic volumes in most spots have decreased since 2000.
That finding supports proponents' efforts to convert to two-way traffic.
To further curb traffic, the city is proposing to change the path of Route 77 from State and High streets to the Fore River Parkway and West Commercial Street.
Bobinsky said he believes that $150,000 is reasonable, given the extensive public process envisioned in the study and the fact that it covers two busy corridors.
The end product would present several scenarios, including safety upgrades that could be made even if the streets remained one-way. The study also would produce engineering-grade plans that would enable the city to move forward quickly with any changes.
The area covers about 20 intersections that would need minor to major upgrades.
Previous traffic studies in Portland have used a combination of federal, state and local funding.
The "Transforming Forest Avenue" study cost $100,000, of which $20,000 was funded locally. That plan did not include engineering work.
Phase I of a Franklin Street study, consisting of broad design concepts, cost about $30,000, $6,000 of which was funded locally. The more detailed second phase, including engineering work, will cost $556,000, including a local share of $139,000.
Bobinsky acknowledged that budget difficulties lie ahead but said the city must continue to invest in projects that support all modes of transportation.
"We're evolving," he said. "It's not only about how fast can vehicles get through an intersection. Walkable communities are something that is a linchpin in the city of Portland."
Neighborhood groups representing Parkside and the West End support the plan. But the Portland Community Chamber is expressing caution about the proposed conversion, said Chris O'Neil, the group's liaison to City Hall.
O'Neil said the study would have to show that converting the roads would not add to the vacancy rate downtown. According to the chamber's 2012-13 scorecard, office vacancy rates downtown were at 13.9 percent in 2011.
That was higher than in Portland's suburbs, which had a 0.31 percent vacancy rate.
City Manager Mark Rees said it is too soon to say whether he will keep the funding request in the budget, which is expected to be presented to the Finance Committee on April 1.
"Historically, total budget requests far exceed ability to pay," Rees said.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: