2017-03-09 / Front Page

Saco eyes transportation-related needs

By Garrick Hoffman
Staff Writer


Saco City Administrator Kevin Sutherland flips through Saco’s comprehensive plan, which Sutherland seeks to update. Each colored tab represents a note Sutherland made in the plan. (Garrick Hoffman photo) Saco City Administrator Kevin Sutherland flips through Saco’s comprehensive plan, which Sutherland seeks to update. Each colored tab represents a note Sutherland made in the plan. (Garrick Hoffman photo) SACO – With the help of Southern Maine Planning & Development Commission, Saco’s planning department has accumulated a wealth of data that it plans to use in making decisions for Saco’s roads, sidewalks and traffic management as part of its comprehensive plan update.

The Southern Maine Planning & Development Commission is a nonprofit council of governments that serves 39 member municipalities from Kittery to Stoneham, according to its website. It was founded in 1945 in response to a need for a coordinated effort for economic development and resource management, with a goal of strengthening municipalities through a myriad of methods such as recognizing and studying regional challenges and communicating with governments to solve them, among other goals and services.


The group at the March 2 comprehensive plan meeting looks over a map of Saco. Clockwise at the table from left to right is Don Girouard, vice chairman of the planning board; Raynald Demers, Saco police chief; Peg Poulin, Saco Main Street board member; Bill Mann, economic development director; Tim Leary, owner and operator of Leary Farm in Saco; Rick Millard, board member of the energy commission; Bette Brunswick, The group at the March 2 comprehensive plan meeting looks over a map of Saco. Clockwise at the table from left to right is Don Girouard, vice chairman of the planning board; Raynald Demers, Saco police chief; Peg Poulin, Saco Main Street board member; Bill Mann, economic development director; Tim Leary, owner and operator of Leary Farm in Saco; Rick Millard, board member of the energy commission; Bette Brunswick, “This transportation presentation is just one part of the comprehensive plan update that the city of Saco is undertaking,” said Kathy Connor, senior planner of the development commission.

The development commission has been contracted to assist Saco with the update for $23,000, but this leverages an additional $14,500 in state funding.

Saco City Planner Bob Hamblen said a community in Maine typically updates its comprehensive plan every 10 years, which outlines future goals for development within a community. Saco is operating under its 2011 comprehensive plan, but has just begun updating it at the suggestion of City Administrator Kevin Sutherland.

“With the arrival of Sutherland about a year and a half ago, he took a look at (the plan) and said, ‘Hey, this is old information already. Let’s update our plan sooner than we would otherwise.’”

Hamblen said Sutherland wanted to see greater emphasis on the downtown that was not included in the 2011 plan. He said Sutherland’s aim is to generate greater density there with residents, businesses and visitors, even if it means having people entering neighborhoods just outside the downtown area, which would be cheaper to service them in terms of plowing snow or shuttle bus services.

“(Sutherland) is absolutely right,” Hamblen said.

Sutherland came to Saco from Ithaca, New York, where he was the chief of staff for the small college city for almost 10 years. Working for Ithaca required Sutherland and his colleagues to think creatively, implement a “smart growth” methodology and be innovative for the city, which was rapidly expanding, becoming expensive and experiencing a vacancy rate among its residents of about a half a percent. Five percent vacancy is what Sutherland said is a healthy rate for a city. Saco’s vacancy rate is about 2 percent for residents, and about a half a percent commercially.

Smart growth is an approach to development that encourages a mix of building types and uses, diverse housing and transportation options, development within existing neighborhoods, and community engagement, according to the website for Smart Growth America. This can involve approaches such as offering a range of housing opportunities and choices, providing a variety of transportation options and creating walkable neighborhoods.

When Sutherland first arrived in Saco for his new job prospect, he said he recognized Saco as a city with significant potential and opportunity.

“I was so amazed by, and I saw the potential for, Saco,” he said. “When I applied for the job here, I talked about smart growth, and I asked the councilors (during) my interview, ‘You guys are concerned about the tax rate. If your services are this good and you don’t want to lose those services, the only option you have is to build your economy, build your base. You have to grow. Do you guys want to grow your community?’ . . . I’m advocating for smart growth, so once I articulated that a little more, council came around.”

The planning department began meeting for the comprehensive plan update in November 2016, Hamblen said. There have been about a half dozen meetings so far that have been principally focused on data. The next one is on economic development at 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, March 16. It will conclude the series of meetings focused on data. Subsequent meetings will focus on recommendations and decisions stemming from the accumulation of data.

“The upcoming late-March into June meetings are really going to be important,” Hamblen said.

The development commission provided a PowerPoint presentation that included data about Saco’s transportation network, users within that transportation network, funding of transportation infrastructures, transportation studies and transportation projects.

Sourcing from organizations such as the Maine Department of Transportation, the U.S. Census Bureau and Saco Public Works Department, it included data related to parking, bridges, modes of transportation and traffic trends, among other transportation-related matters; maps of the city that detailed population density and traffic patterns such as accidents and peak hours; and information relating to the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, also known as PACTS, a planning organization for the Portland region.

Among some of the noteworthy information was that there is an upward trend with traffic in Saco, including car accidents. There were 591 crashes in 2015, the most “by far,” Reinauer said, compared to 2010 to 2015. This number represents a 17 percent increase in crashes from 2010, which had 504, the least amount in those five years.

Reinauer said ridership for the shuttle bus and Amtrak in Saco has increased significantly over the past five years.

“That’s really a good sign. There’s a lot more ridership than there used to be,” he said.

The commission also discussed the idea of “complete streets,” which Saco already has at least four of, including Water Street. Torres said complete streets are designed to adequately service more than just motorists, such as pedestrians, bicyclists and buses.

“A complete street varies from street to street,” Torres said. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, so they can include sidewalks, bike lanes, paved shoulders, comfortable bus stops, safe crosswalks, median islands with pedestrian refuges” and curb extensions, also known as bump outs, which make crossing the street easier for pedestrians. A complete street may also include narrower travel lanes to calm traffic from speeding, Torres said.

The meeting marked the first time the idea of switching the bus transportation system to a pulse design was broached publicly. Reinauer said under the pulse system, buses would start at a single point – a transportation hub – and “pulse out” on their routes and return to the same spot, allowing for easier transfers and fostering a more efficient, comfortable and convenient service for riders.

The current system runs on a “figure eight” loop, wherein if a bus in Biddeford travels down Alfred Street, it would return on Elm Street instead of Alfred. The pulse system would allow the current system to be changed to an easier and more efficient fashion.

“Most bus services that are really successful are based on a pulse or modified pulse system,” Reinauer said. “Bangor switched to that about eight years ago and ridership just exploded. It was a huge difference.”

Sutherland said Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System is an important aspect of the comprehensive plan because the city receives federal money for transportation through it. He said the transportation system recently approved a new funding scheme that’s tied more to complete streets, wherein communities that have a complete streets policy are more likely to be rewarded funding for projects.

However, the process to receive funding can be confusing, Sutherland said.

“It’s a really complex system and it’s important the comprehensive plan committee knows about his organization, and if they really want to see a confusing organization in the process, they’re welcome to attend those meetings,” Sutherland said. “I’ve been going for a year and a half and I still haven’t figured out the best way to try to get as many dollars to Saco as possible through this organization.”

Sutherland said if Saco wants money from organizations such as the transportation system, it needs to push the federal government to allocate resources for transportation and infrastructure.

However, Fox said that if Saco begins to receive any federal money for infrastructure projects, the costs for the projects would increase due to oversight, testing and wage surveys.

“The costs to administer that project versus if we just decided we’re going to rebuild a road, is at least three or four times the cost, and three or four times the hours of staff,” Fox said. “It’s amazing. We can sometimes do a project locally for 20 percent of what the cost is as soon as one federal dollar is going into that project.”

The next meeting will be at 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, March 16 at Saco City Hall.

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