January 22, 2018
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Can we really get there from here?

By Michael W. Aube, Special to the BDN
Courtesy photo | BDN
Courtesy photo | BDN
Michael W. Aube

One of the major assets of any region is a well-developed transportation system that builds upon the region’s strengths and needs, a “smart transportation system.” It’s critical that any strategic economic development decisions focus on this type of system.

With this in mind, Mobilize Eastern Maine, a local network of business and community leaders who work to advance the region economically, identified transportation as one of its primary assets and began looking at ways to measure the current transportation assets and determine where there is room for improvement.

In 2011, Penobscot County was the lead recipient of a TIGER II transportation planning grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. TIGER II provides funding to conduct a study of how we get where we’re going, where else we could go with just a few changes and what makes it difficult for our friends and neighbors in rural areas to access services and jobs in our larger cities. This particular grant focused on Hancock, Penobscot, Piscataquis and Waldo counties.

When the grant was received, an advisory group was formed and included representatives from transportation industries, health care, economic and community development as well as other sectors. They developed a problem statement and created a needs assessment survey. The group then reviewed the region’s existing transportation options and those of similar areas across the country. They studied potential solutions and have reached preliminary conclusions for how to begin reducing our transportation gaps.

The survey has received 1,282 responses. Preliminary data confirms what many have suspected: Limited options, rising gas prices and geographic isolation are detrimental to many rural Maine residents who need reliable transportation to connect to needed services, education and employment.

Although a final report is not yet available, the responses received thus far support many of the group’s prior assumptions. Rural residents who do own transportation drive alone instead of ride sharing. Those who don’t own their own vehicle tend to rely on family members with cars. And many household incomes are significantly affected as gas prices continue to rise.

As a result of these findings and research a few preliminary conclusions and potential solutions are being formed.

The initial findings suggest that the key to resolving the deficiency of transportation options in rural Maine lies in the development of a multimodal approach. This “network of networks” approach consists of support for the development of the Surface Transportation and Recreation Center facility in Ellsworth. This new, multimodal transportation center will support integration and connections for regional bus services, inter-city bus services, park-and-ride services, trail access (starting point) to the soon-to-be completed Down East Sunrise Trail and a railroad center serving as the gateway for a Downeast Scenic Railroad service. Construction of strategically placed park-and-ride lots in Millinocket, Ellsworth and Dover-Foxcroft would allow residents of those areas to meet in order share rides, bus pool and van pool and reduce transportation costs.

In addition, the use of digital and social networks to support an intelligent transportation approach seems likely. The use of Internet-based transportation sites in Maine such as GoMaine (www.gomaine.org) has already proven useful in connecting residents with options such as carpooling, vanpooling, access to employer-supportive service transportation systems, ride share boards, etc. However it’s not a perfect solution for all areas of Maine since Internet connectivity is limited.

A third solution proposes extending the Three-Ring Binder fiber, the “last mile” into rural communities, as part of the “networking” solution to meet the transportation needs of rural residents in the eastern Maine and Bangor growth center. The suggestion is that this “middle mile” be extended as an open source infrastructure to serve selected areas of Old Town, Orono, Ellsworth, Dover-Foxcroft, and Millinocket as a pilot in order to gain information on how customers will respond and the ways in which this infrastructure will be used and managed.

Finally, a Health Impact Assessment should be performed to assess the risks and benefits of a construction project before it is built or implemented. In general, HIAs can provide recommendations to increase positive health outcomes and minimize adverse health outcomes. The HIA framework is used to bring potential public health impacts and considerations to the decision-making process for projects that fall outside of traditional public health arenas, such as transportation and land use.

This “smart transportation” system project has the potential to be truly transformational for rural communities and will serve as an approach that could be duplicated in other parts of Maine and in other states. Making it easier for residents to connect to service hubs must be a high priority and the future planning for a multimodal center in Bangor would complete this connection. The TIGER II funding put us on the road, so to speak, but we still have a long way to go. With the continued support, dedication and collaboration of all of the region’s communities we will soon see the benefits for our friends, neighbors and the whole of Eastern Maine.

Michael W. Aube is president of Eastern Maine Development Corporation in Bangor. He is a past commissioner of Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development and former state director of Maine USDA Rural Development.

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