Maine needs to clean up transportation emissions, but isn’t investing in public transit

By: - October 11, 2023 12:05 pm

‘People have this misconception that transit can’t work in a rural state like Maine,’ said Josh Caldwell, climate and clean energy outreach coordinator for Natural Resources Council of Maine. (Photo by Greater Portland Metro/Facebook)

In the midst of a statewide push to reduce the number of miles people drive with their personal vehicles, the Maine Department of Transportation is spending $124 million to create six miles of new highway between I-395 and Route 9 in north central Maine and the Maine Turnpike Authority is proposing another 4.5 stretch of highway west of Portland to the tune of $200 million.

Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Maine, with most of it coming from personal vehicles. Efforts to mitigate that through the state’s climate action plan have focused on converting drivers to electric vehicles, but lawmakers and advocates say other clean transportation options aren’t being prioritized or funded.

“The DOT is essentially all about cars and roads and they need to get more with it in terms of public transportation,” Sen. Lynne Williams (D-Bar Harbor) said.

Williams, who co-chairs the Maine Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Transportation, said there is an appetite for public transportation even beyond the environmental benefits, such as people who want to move throughout the state without having to use a car. Another member of the transportation committee, Sen. Joe Baldacci (D-Penobscot), said it’s a “nonpartisan issue.”

But that support for increasing public transportation options hasn’t been matched by the funding it would require from the state budget, which originates from the governor’s office. And the state doesn’t even need to be using all of its own money. Williams and Baldacci said there are federal funds available to support public transit projects.

Under the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Maine could receive about $250 million over five years to improve public transportation, according to a fact sheet from the White House.

Maine is already expected to receive $19 million in federal funds to build out a network of vehicle charging stations across the state. Under the current climate action plan, the state has further invested in residents switching to electric vehicles by offering rebates of $500 to $7,500 when someone buys new or $2,500 when someone with low income buys used.

Earlier this year, rebates were expanded to electric bicycles, but it took work from advocates and came years after the climate action plan was finalized in late 2020.

Late last month, the Maine Climate Council met to kick off another round of updates to the climate plan, which will be delivered in the legislature in December 2024.

While encouraging EVs, the original plan also called for the reduction in the overall number of miles people drive in their cars. The plan includes goals for increased funding and public commuting options, but efforts haven’t gotten very far.

“The conversation is very difficult right now because the governor is steadfast against any expansion of rail in Maine,” Baldacci said.

Mills’ office declined to comment but directed questions to the DOT.

Maine’s ‘missed opportunity’

When the state’s first climate action plan was being developed, Jim Tasse, assistant director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, was on the transportation working group. He said they were presented with multiple scenarios about how to rapidly reduce transportation emissions.

Electrifying was the most effective solution, he said. But it requires enough people buying electric vehicles and fabricating a statewide charging infrastructure.

The plan set a goal of 219,000 EVs in Maine by 2030. As of December 2022, there were a little more than 8,500. Charging stations across the state increased from 184 in 2019 to just under 400 at the end of last year.

Public transportation coupled with pedestrian transit could offer a faster, yet still effective means for reducing emissions, Tasse said. Rather than acquiring new technology to support EVs, resources could be used to enhance walking, biking and public transit systems.

“We already know how to do those things,” he said.

When the first iteration of the climate action plan was finalized, the Bicycle Coalition of Maine said it was “disappointed” in the plan’s emphasis on EVs over biking, walking and transit.

“We feel that Maine has missed an opportunity to invest in strategies that would have more immediate benefits in terms of emissions,” a public statement from the organization said.

Public and active transit are low-cost options that could serve a variety of communities and provide health benefits, the statement goes on to say.

In partnership with MaineDOT, the Bicycle Coalition offers e-bike demonstration rides. Local government officials can request one to learn more about how e-bikes can be incorporated into transportation options for their community.

Tasse is a proponent of e-bicycles, but he said they go hand in hand with transit.

“Bike-ped takes it the last mile, but you want to be able to put your e-bike on a bus to get you where you need to go,” he said.

Members of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine at the Maine State House lobbying for bills relating to bike and pedestrian infrastructure, access, and safety. (courtesy of Bicycle Coalition of Maine)

More bikes and more buses

An e-bike won’t get you from Biddeford to Bangor, but that doesn’t mean cars still have to be the only option.

“People have this misconception that transit can’t work in a rural state like Maine,” said Josh Caldwell, climate and clean energy outreach coordinator for Natural Resources Council of Maine.

It starts with how cities, towns and villages are set up. Maine has many old mill towns with nice downtown areas. Strategically making those denser can help with cleaner transportation goals, said Sara Mills-Knapp, director of sustainability for the Greater Portland Council of Governments.

“Suburban sprawl is a killer for the environment,” Caldwell said.

Having dense downtown areas, even in small communities, can trim away some of those smaller car rides people take to get from stores and other places that are now spread across a town. Caldwell also envisions the possibility of bus systems that connect people from town to town.

Almost three out of four times Mainers get in their cars, they drive between five and 10 miles, according to Bicycle Coalition of Maine. That number holds true throughout the state, Tasse said, even rural counties.

Building the additional housing stock the state needs in downtown areas could cut back car usage even further if people are already walking distance from shops and offices, Mills-Knapps said.

Multimodal transportation includes trains

Buses are helpful for getting people to work and school, but Baldacci says trains are an important piece of multimodal transportation to connect the whole state.

There has been some movement to extend rail service up the coast of Maine, although the new line from Brunswick to Rockland is mostly aimed at tourist travel.

In his effort to expand rail transit in central Maine, Baldacci proposed a bill for a state-funded feasibility study. Nate Moulton, transportation planning division director for MaineDOT, gave testimony against funding the study because he argued that extending passenger rail to Bangor would be too costly without sufficient demand.

But Baldacci said the study would set them up to access federal funding to pay for trains.

“All I’m asking the state to do is fund the study, so that we can begin the process to qualify for federal funding,” he said.

Instead, Moulton said in his testimony, the “cost-effective, timely, equitable, and climate-friendly way” to improve public transportation in that part of the state would be an expansion of the current bus system.

“Buses are fine,” Baldacci told Maine Morning Star. “Buses are all part of transportation. But in terms of what we are trying to achieve here of having Maine better connected and better economic development, it’s seen as a slap in the face.”

That bill has been carried over to the next session, which starts in January.


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AnnMarie Hilton
AnnMarie Hilton

AnnMarie Hilton grew up in a suburb of Chicago and studied journalism at Northwestern University. Before coming to Maine, she covered education for newspapers in Wisconsin and Indiana.