One for all
Bangor Area Comprehensive Transportation System searches for synergies as it seeks solutions to the area’s transportation challenges.
By Kathryn Buxton
Proof there’s strength in numbers can be found at the offices of the Bangor Area Comprehensive Transportation System (BACTS), the organization that oversees the region’s locally administered transportation system, including planning for its highways, its bicycle and pedestrian facilities and the BAT fixed route transit system.
BACTS works on the behalf of its 11 municipal members, keeping the region’s diverse communities solidly focused on solutions to meet its transportation challenges. That one-for-all and all-for-one philosophy has been a necessity in recent years, as the region has struggled to do more with less funding. “Every member is going to have their own priorities, but we’ve been able to work as a cohesive group and make some very tough decisions,” said Bangor City Engineer Jim Ring, one of the longest serving members of the BACTS Policy Committee. His involvement with BACTS goes back to the 1970s when he first started working for the city.
The BACTS offices are located in a renovated ballroom on the third floor of the old Sears Department store in downtown Bangor. The large, open plan office space provides a handsome combination of grand moldings, high ceilings and sleek modern finishes. Leading a tour of the space, BACTS Director Rob Kenerson points out the synergies represented within that room and throughout the building. BACTS and its parent organization EMDC share the space with several other organizations including the Penobscot Valley Council of Governments and the Small Business Development Corporation (two other divisions of EMDC). Several other non-profit organizations occupy the renovated space, and BACTS frequently finds opportunities to collaborate with its neighbors on planning and transportation-related projects.
That brand of efficiency, cooperation and creativity – and the ability to find opportunity in every situation – has become a hallmark of the metropolitan planning organization (MPO) for more than a decade. In 1995, Kenerson took over the helm of an MPO that includes 11 communities flanking the Penobscot River in eastern Maine. There are three municipalities completely within the BACTS region: Bangor, Brewer and Veazie. Six other towns – Hampden, Orono, Old Town, Milford, Bradley, Eddington and Orrington – lie partly within its boundaries. The Penobscot Indian Nation is the 11th member; representatives from MaineDOT, the Federal Transit Administration, the Federal Highway Administration, the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce and EMDC fill out the membership. BACTS is one of four MPOs in Maine. The others are: the Androscoggin Transportation Resource Center (ARTC); the Kittery Area Comprehensive Transportation Study (KACTS) and the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation Committee (PACTS). While members do the lion’s share of policy work and decision-making, BACTS personnel oversee the day-to-day operations, including administering consultant contracts, performing traffic counts, modeling traffic and developing public involvement plans and public awareness campaigns.
Kenerson has a seasoned staff to aid him. Don Cooper joined BACTS in 1996 as a senior transportation and transit planner. Dianne Currie, transportation technician, joined the organization in 1999. Another EMDC staffer, John Noll, frequently works with BACTS, and Jayda Maher helps part-time with administration. Earlier this year, the MPO put out an ambitious 2008-2009 Unified Work Plan. In that plan, BACTS expects to spend approximately $789,000 on a broad range of projects. They will complete a new truck route study, undertake bike and pedestrian plan studies, participate in a Penobscot River corridor trail study, update the BACTS transit plan and take a fresh look at the organization’s 20-year plan, among other activities.
‘Cut’ not ‘deferred’
To hear Kenerson talk of it, the region’s transportation challenges aren’t much different from those of Maine’s other three MPOs. There are the everyday concerns about traffic congestion and the need to improve safety. Members are also concerned about how the region can keep local roads maintained despite declining federal and state funding. Still, there are differences. While his counterparts at PACTS and KACTS filter many of their activities through the lens of land use planning, BACTS often focuses on the connection between transportation and economic development.
“Communities here are still looking for new jobs,” said Kenerson. Making those connections hasn’t been easy. In recent years, with budget shortfalls at the state and federal levels, many of the region’s priority projects have been knocked off MaineDOT’s work plan. Kenerson, who chooses his words carefully, is not optimistic. That is why he refers to MaineDOT’s backlogged projects in the region as “cut,” not “deferred.” As the funding crisis has become more serious, the BACTS policy committee has really had to look at “what we can do with the resources we have,” said Kenerson. He talked about the hard decisions about which projects to “cut” and which ones to scale back – maybe paving fewer miles or “the granite curbing comes out.” Sometimes municipalities have had to dig in and find dollars to make up the difference.
In all instances, it has required flexibility, creativity and a healthy dose of realism. Realizing that funding will continue to be an issue, Kenerson said BACTS is beginning to look outside the traditional funding mechanisms. During the recent legislative session, BACTS joined the coalition that supported L.D. 1790, legislation that could change how the state funds future investments in its transportation infrastructure. BACTS also has allocated planning resources in 2008- 2009 to study regional impact fees on new development. While the study is just a first step, it could set the stage for future funding that can go to much needed road repairs and improvements. Catherine Conlow, a BACTS Policy Committee member and Orono town manager, is adamant about the need for alternative funding sources. “I don’t know if [impact fees] are feasible or even legal under state law,” she said, adding that it will help identify BACTS’ options. “We’ve got to take care of what we’ve got,” said Conlow.
When BACTS members look ahead, several programs and issues loom large on the horizon, including the future of the local bus system. The BAT has seen ridership increase by 10 percent or more annually over the past several years, largely due to a partnership between the BAT and the University of Maine. The program allows UMaine students, faculty and staff to ride free in exchange for a fee the university pays to the BAT, and its success has strained the system. Several routes are showing wear and tear, with crowded buses that sometimes cannot stay on schedule. “In a sense, we are a victim of our own success,” said BACTS’ transit planner Don Cooper.
The organization is coordinating a transit study to look at routes and lead times to find a solution to the problem. Orono’s Conlow hopes to see changes in the service that make it easier for local residents to ride the BAT. “We’d love to see more of our residents riding the bus, because those roads get very congested when school’s in session,” said Conlow. BACTS members also are concerned about safety and pavement conditions of the interstate and capacity at some of its interchanges. One of those, Exit 184 that empties onto busy Union Street was built as a “scissor” design with exiting traffic forced to cross over a lane of entering traffic. “The interchange was never meant for the amount of traffic it handles today,” said Kenerson who added that because of the obsolete design, the location has one of the highest accident rates in the state.
The truck weight limit on the interstate is another hot button issue. Members are very interested in getting a waiver from Congress that would raise the limit to 100,000 pounds. Because of its location, the region serves as a crossroads for the entire state, connecting heavy industries in the north with markets to the south. With federal interstate truck limits currently at 80,000 pounds, area towns and cities log a high incidence of the heaviest commercial truck traffic on local roads.
Bangor’s Jim Ring sees a waiver as the obvious solution, both safer and more efficient. He sees little sense in having the big trucks “pound the daylights out of our secondary roads – it just isn’t common sense” when the interstate was built to standards that easily and more efficiently could handle the heavier traffic. According to Ring, truck weight limits and the lack of funding are two sides of the same issue: how can BACTS continue to keep local roads safe and efficient? “I am truly worried about what we are going to look like in five, 10 or 20 years. We just aren’t going to be able to keep up with the roads and keep them safe. I’m sorry to be so grim.”
Whatever tough times and difficult decisions lay ahead, the region is bound to benefit from the collective expertise and energies of BACTS: 11 diverse communities working toward the common goal of maintaining a safe and efficient transportation system for the region’s citizens.