Generally speaking, Maine was not swept up in the highway craze of the 1950s and 1960s. Still, however, we are living with the effects of urban freeways dividing communities and creating sprawl.

The Portland section of Interstate 295 is a prime culprit of this. Polish and Italian neighborhoods were torn up in order to make room for I-295 and it removed a train line that had previously run around the peninsula portion of the city. Not only was it intended to segregate Portland, but it also relied on every household commuting and traveling by car. Stores in walkable neighborhoods became shopping centers with parking lots.

The lasting results of the project are evident today; Deering Oaks is separated by four lanes of traffic to Back Cove, and it can be hazardous to walk between neighborhoods separated by I-295. The six exits in Portland negatively break up the city grid. The Downeaster is receiving expanded service; however, it does not have stops at many towns commuters live in. To create a better-functioning city, the state and city governments should consider removing I-295 through Portland and replacing it with commuter rail.

Despite the initial costs, removing I-295’s urban sections would help the city economically and be more efficient for commuters. A 2010 study by the Maine Department of Transportation found that the traffic volume since I-295’s construction has grown by a factor of five. Adding lanes is not a viable solution because of induced demand and was estimated to cost close to $2 million.

Adding rail services would cost tens of millions but would also bring in revenue that could pay for the service in a matter of years. If Maine contractors are hired for the project, the funds spent to remove I-295 would stay within the state and create good jobs for residents. If the highway were turned into a street or boulevard, it could also create spaces for businesses. Pedestrian-friendly infrastructure increases shopping, especially among tourists, which can greatly help the local economy. Removing I-295 through Portland could additionally open up space for affordable housing, which the city finds itself desperately short on.

There is also the environmental and health damage to the city that car-based infrastructure like I-295 creates. The health and community benefits are much less tangible; however, this does not make them less valuable.

The Old Port has taken many steps in recent years, including roadblocks and sidewalk expansion, that have created welcoming cultural spaces. Maine is ahead of its climate goals to reduce emissions and replacing I-295 with commuter rail could be another helpful step.

Removing the highway could create safe and green spaces that reduce emissions and give kids a chance to get outside. As childhood obesity rises, do not blame the kids; blame their surroundings, which are filled with asphalt and fast food restaurants. Building passenger rail to replace I-295 through Portland would create spaces to walk, bike and enjoy the rich culture that Portland has to offer.

Cities should be more than just a downtown; they should contain public spaces, restaurants, theaters, museums and every type of business that celebrates their people. Portland is loved by residents and visitors alike for this very attribute and we should continue to perfect the greatest city in New England.

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