2017-05-11 / Front Page

Transportation issues narrowed

By Garrick Hoffman
Staff Writer

SACO – Following a meeting that focused on transportation-related data in March, Saco’s Comprehensive Plan Committee, accompanied by the Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission, have begun eyeing goals, strategies and policies that pertain to transportation.

At a March 2 meeting, the commission noted that there is an upward trend with traffic in Saco, including car accidents. There were 591 crashes in 2015, the most “by far,” said Transportation Director Tom Reinauer, compared to figures in 2010 to 2015. This number represents a 17 percent increase in crashes from 2010, which had 504, the least amount in those five years.

In 2014, local ShuttleBus ridership was 88,553. In 2015, this number jumped to 103,993. Total ridership for ShuttleBus, including its local, zoom and intercity services, jumped from 166,508 in 2014 to 182,9651 from 2014 to 2015, according to a presentation by the Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission.

“That’s really a good sign. There’s a lot more ridership than there used to be,” Reinauer said at the March 2 meeting.

The same presentation noted that in fiscal year 2016, Saco had a total of 20,234 boardings for the Amtrak.

Reinauer said since the group last met, suggestions have been made for transportation projects, such as Exit 36 traffic flow improvement and possible improvements to the Eastern Trail on-road sections. In addition, Public Works Director Pat Fox made comments about changes and updates, which were included in materials distributed at the meeting.

“Really the goal of this meeting for us and you guys is to review those and let us know if there’s something missing, if anything needs to be changed and if something needs to be taken out,” he said. “Take a look at it and give us your feedback. We can take that over the next week or so and take those changes.”

The next step, he said, is to give a final draft to Kathy Connor, senior planner of the commission. She has the framework that will be talked about for putting all of the goals, strategies and policies together in one format, he said.

Because Southern Maine Planning & Development Commission is funded by the Maine Department of Transportation, its work for the comprehensive plan update has to be done by July 1, Reinauer said.

The Southern Maine Planning & Development Commissionisanonprofitcouncilofgovernmentsthatserves 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.

Don Girouard, vice chairman of the planning board, said he’d like to see more specifics outlined in the materials provided by Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission, titled “Draft recommendations for discussion at the May 4 Committee Meeting.”

“What do we do with Main Street from Beach Street on out to I-195? What do we do with Route 1 from I-195 to the Scarborough line? What do we do with Elm Street?” he asked. “There are traffic issues and that’s what we’re here to discuss.”

He said the committee needs to consider what it envisions for mitigating increased traffic on Main Street and Route 1, and what it can do in the next five to 10 years to solve or ameliorate that problem.

Under its draft recommendations, Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission included 12 items that pertain to transportation. Items were:

 Alternative modes of transportation, such as bus and passenger rail service

 Funding

 Traffic signals

 Maine Turnpike

 Route 1

 Bridges

 Bicycle/pedestrian network

 Parking

 Road projects

 Regional cooperation

 Cost saving strategies

 Safety

Present at the meeting were representatives from Shuttlebus-Zoom, including Deputy Director Rod Carpenter and Executive Director Al Schutz. Carpenter said it’s important for the company to be included in the planning process because it serves the community for transportation-related matters, but there have been obstacles that have emerged more recently.

“Now we’re realizing the streets are only so wide, there’s only so many room for bus stops and that’s where we need to be part of this planning process,” he said. “We used to have half-hour service; now we have two-hour service because of traffic lights and all these things. Let’s look at the future so we have the transit system needed when all these mill buildings are full, when this street isn’t wide enough. If we want what we want for 10 years or so, we got to be talking about it tonight.”

Schutz said the company hopes to implement a new way of doing things, called a “pulse” system, within the next 12 to 18 months, but it is still awaiting funding. It receives funding from various sources, including local businesses and the state and federal government.

“We’re trying to change the system from the core to keep transportation centered around that core because there’s so much development going on,” Schutz said. “We need to step up our game a little bit and be able to meet the demand.”

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.”

Schutz said ShuttleBus-Zoom will be at the vanguard of Saco’s transportation matters in the future.

“Everybody’s realizing we’re part of solution going forward,” he said. “When I got here, we had to rebuild the system, and now we have a lot of things going. We can take on the future of transportation with aging in place, millennials and people saying cars are too expensive to own. We’re excited. A lot of things are happening in transportation; we’ll be at forefront of most of it.”

Saco resident Claire Dube, who attended the meeting as a resident, said her goal for Saco’s transportation is to be able to navigate through the city without using a car.

“My idea is to live, work and play in Saco without a car,” she said. “To me that would be a goal because I want to be able to get around without a car and help reduce traffic. It’ll achieve a lot of the things we’re trying to achieve.”

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