A setback for 21st Century Transportation, Governor LePage Pulls the Plug on the Community-Led Planning Process for Maine Gateway 1

Congestion on Maine's Gateway 1

Maine’s new Governor Paul LePage has shut down State DOT support of the grassroots, bottom-up Maine Gateway 1, a community-led land-use and transportation planning project for Maine’s mid-coast.  A letter from LePage’s office to Don White, Chairman of the project’s Implementation Steering Committee, explains “Gateway 1 does not correspond with the immediate priorities of this administration…we have made the decision to suspend the planning process.”

This decision is so short sighted on so many levels that I am not sure where to begin. Governor LePage’s unilateral decision to abandon 21 communities in Maine is a huge step backward for 21st Century transportation. It is a blow both to the slow migration of government back to democratic grassroots decision-making and to the public support of the idea that transportation agencies are justified in raising funds to continue with their missions.

First, a bit of background on the Maine Gateway 1 project.

The Maine Gateway 1 project was a 21st Century solution to burgeoning congestion on Route 1 and local roads in the Mid Coast of Maine.  The 120 mile corridor extends from Brunswick to Prospect, and grew to include 21 communities. The project was facilitated by Maine DOT with the full cooperation of the Federal Highway Administration Maine Division Office. In December 2010, the project was awarded the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2010 National Award for Smart Growth Achievement in the Rural category.

The Action Plan for Maine Gateway 1 involved representatives from 21 Corridor Communities to build a vision and a specific set of solutions to encourage local economic growth in addition to addressing the region's transportation concerns.

The project’s Action Plan says it “illustrates how solutions can emerge when communities team up with state and federal agencies and put everything on the table.  The plan was developed by representatives from 21 Corridor communities in the form of a Steering Committee, who worked together with the Maine Department of Transportation and Maine State Planning Office with the support of the Federal Highway Administration and four regional planning commissions.  Together they developed not just a vision, but a set of specific solutions, both local and regional.  They arrived at a plan that simultaneously provides for economic growth, preserves transportation resources, and keeps the highly livable, scenic ‘brand’ of MidCoast Maine.  At the heart of the plan is a marriage of land use and transportation. The plan recommends a pattern of future development that will reduce stress on the transportation system along with a set of strategic transportation investments.”

One would think that both liberals and conservatives alike would praise such intents. Yet, last fall, anti-livability demonstrators began turning up at community organized meetings and used all sorts of tactics to disrupt the discussion.  Members of the Tea Party – who solidly supported Governor LePage’s election- even made wild allegations that somehow the United Nations was behind Gateway 1.  Our biggest loss in this move may not be the project itself but the disappearance of truth and good old fashioned, honest and respectful American debate in the political decision-making process.

If Gateway 1 sought to revoke property rights and community self determination as part of some “nefarious” UN plot, you couldn’t tell it from talking to the hard working American citizen leaders in the 21 communities that participated in the Gateway 1 process.

In fact, I can tell you so myself: as part of a National Cooperative Highway Research Program study, I interviewed residents and leaders of a number of the communities.  I also participated in and observed the community response to the early democratic town hall type discussions that kicked off the process.   Here are quotes contained in notes from my interviews: “the state agreed to honor the local right to self-determination”;  or “for the first time, the state DOT has shown a sincere interest in helping us sustain our local economy and character”;  or “for once, the state government listened to our needs and concerns.”  Overall, the process had restored the communities’ belief that the state DOT was there to help them, instead of focusing more on bridges and pavement than on people’s well-being. This all ended with Governor LePage’s decision to “suspend the planning process” on March 2, 2011.

Those of us who are not embedded in the 1950s era transportation culture realize that the era of single purpose spending is over.  We can no longer afford to shovel precious tax payer dollars to resurface a half of a mile of Interstate highway, when the same investment — $1.5 million – could help create wealth and preserve rural landscapes in 21 communities along 120 miles of Maine’s mid-coast. The Gateway 1 project recognized this.

I will close this post with some of the same words that I used to begin my June 8, 2010 piece Putting the Livability Agenda Back in Place: we are entering a dangerous era in the history of transportation.  Our existing infrastructure is crumbling, and the public has lost its willingness to fund transportation improvements. Investment in high-speed, grade-separated highway capacity worked well for a few decades, but has led to unintended consequences for the nation’s health and the global climate. Meanwhile, research shows that congestion indicators in metropolitan areas across America are much worse today than they were in the 1970s.  In many parts of the country, even in some of the the least affected areas, congestion measures are 200 to 400 percent higher than they were before a massive investment in freeways.

To navigate our way forward over the next 20 years, we will need to base our decisions on data and learn which investment decisions of the 20th Century worked (and which ones made our problems more complicated).   We have to uncover the truth about how things have changed and think carefully about how things will continue to change over the next fifty years, adapt to those new realities, and govern accordingly.

We have to recognize that relying on a transportation culture that intentionally puts pavement and bridges over the needs of communities (which resulted partially from a policy that had its purposes in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s), is no more viable today that counting on the milkman to deliver milk to our door every day.  But most important, we have to foster the tried and true American principle of open, honest, and truthful debate.

Gary Toth is Senior Director of Transportation Initiatives with Project for Public Spaces.  Gary has thirty eight years of experience in the transportation establishment, thirty four as an engineer helping the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) navigate projects through the public process. Meg MacIver also contributed to this post.

 

Tagged with →