Lots of cars, all going slowly at the same time along the same few overmatched roads, making commuters rage and the air turn dirty. That might not be the plan for southern Maine traffic exactly – but that’s what we’ve got.

Fortunately, a coalition of transit officials is starting to look at how to make it better over the next 30 years. And it’s coming at the right time, too, with a governor who’s ready to tackle climate change.

Officials kicked off the Transit Tomorrow study earlier this month. The study will look at bus, rail and ferry service in southern Maine, from Saco-Biddeford-Old Orchard Beach up through the immediate Portland area, a region of more than 500,000 Mainers.

The study aims to determine how different populations in the region – students, workers, seniors – get around, and how members of those populations can be encouraged to use more public transit. What routes are needed? What upgrades to infrastructure? How do new technologies and services such as self-driving cars or ride-sharing fit in the mix?

Even in car-dependent Maine, use of public transit has grown in recent years. In southern Maine, usage went from nearly 3.8 million riders in 2013 to almost 4.3 million in 2017, according to the Greater Portland Council of Governments. Officials say more routes and better facilities are the reason.

It is critical for the health and well-being of Mainers that increase in public transit continue and even quicken, and that investment goes directly where it will help the most people use it. The roads around southern Maine simply cannot handle the sprawl that has grown in the Portland suburbs – and which is quickly spreading north, west and south. We cannot continue to build more and more roads, thinking that will solve the problem.

All the cars on the road represent Maine’s chief contribution to climate change as well. In the last two decades, as greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, businesses and residences in Maine fell, emissions from vehicles stayed flat.

Vehicles now account for more than half of all emissions in Maine; nationwide, it’s around 28 percent.

Cutting those emissions won’t make a significant dent in global climate change. And preparing for any problems that climate change brings, particularly along the coast, should also be high on Maine’s agenda.

But lowering emissions will show that Maine is serious about contributing to a very important fight.

It will make us healthier, too – according to the Rockport-based Acadia Center, passenger vehicle emissions were responsible for $500 million in health costs in Maine in 2015.

The Acadia Center also figures that modernizing and making green Maine’s transportation system would be a boost to the economy. By prioritizing electric cars and buses – and by implementing a vehicle emissions cap-and-trade plan based on the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative – Maine can raise $1 billion in new wages, create 8,700 long-term jobs and reduce emissions by 45 percent.

Less irritating commutes aboard vehicles that are better for the planet? That sounds like a plan.


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