How best to describe MDOT’s commuter plan? Ridiculous.

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“We’ve created sprawl through poor planning, both transportation and land use, and we’re going to follow that up by creating a subsidized commuter system to chase those same commuters on a free highway. That sounds ridiculous to me.”

Androscoggin County Commissioner Jonathan LaBonte is absolutely correct. It sounds ridiculous because it is ridiculous.

The Maine Department of Transportation has spent the past 18 months studying commuter patterns north of Portland, anticipating applying for Federal Transit Authority Small Starts grant funding as part of the so-called Portland North commuter project. The conclusion of that study is that there are more commuters and, therefore, greater need to establish rail or commuter bus lines between Portland and Brunswick and not between Portland and Lewiston.

Should it surprise anyone that there are more commuters between Brunswick and Portland? That population is better able to afford private transportation. But, according to members of Visible Community, there are over 3,000 households in L-A without cars, the highest percent of residences without personal transportation in Maine. Many simply cannot afford to buy cars, gas and tolls to commute.

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Counting existing commuters to justify expanding commuter lines is flawed logic because it ignores would-be commuters who are trapped elsewhere without public transportation.

The people of Lewiston and Auburn have proven eager bus passengers, with CityLink Bus System use increasing 89 percent between 2002 and 2008 after the system made adjustments in bus routes within the Twin Cities. There is no reason to think the same pattern wouldn’t emerge if the options to travel between L-A and Portland were improved. But that’s not MDOT’s end goal.

No matter what option is chosen — rail or bus line — the commuter line will be heavily subsidized, so MDOT is leaning toward the option in which travelers will be most likely to pay the fare.

So, the Portland North project is not about serving the public as much as it is about paying the bill. That’s not a bad consideration, but it’s being made without also considering the possibility that should a commuter line open between Portland and Lewiston that the people here would be equally willing to pay. The line doesn’t exist now, so it’s supposition, but if there’s any place that needs public transportation more than another, it’s a place with the largest population of non-driving residents in the state.

But, as MDOT points out, the federal government does not consider economic development and community building when passing out money for transit projects. Only confirmation of existing commuter traffic. That’s ridiculous, too.

If MDOT goes with the bus line, it is considering the creation of a rapid-transit regional bus system traveling along breakdown lanes on either Interstate 95 between Portland and Auburn, or on Interstate 295 from Portland to Brunswick. That’s not just ridiculous. It’s daft.

Unless MDOT is going to establish stops to pick up passengers along the sides of these highways, rapid-transit in the breakdown lanes makes absolutely no sense. These buses can ride along in the travel lane in the established traffic pattern. Anything else would be confusing for motorists, and would limit the critical use of breakdown lanes for vehicles to … break down.

The point, we hope, of expanding the commuter line is to improve transportation. If that’s the case, the fact that some 3,000 individuals in the Twin Cities aren’t commuting to Portland because they don’t have personal vehicles must be part of the equation to seek improvements.

In focusing expanded commuter lines along Maine’s coast, MDOT will simply be adding options for a population that already has a lot of options, a lot more means and that will service the wealthiest people in Maine. How’s that for ridiculous?

editorialboard@sunjournal.com

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