Portland City Council seeks pause on Gorham turnpike spur

Design of Fore River Parkway Trail moves forward

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The Portland City Council unanimously requested a study of the climate impacts from a proposed highway connector between South Portland and Gorham.

Monday night’s resolution called for the Maine Turnpike Authority to pause work on the proposed turnpike spur to determine the compatibility of the project with other rapid transit options.

Seal of the city of portlandThe city first discussed the action on March 9 at the Sustainability and Transportation Committee.

The proposed study would evaluate whether the connector aligns with recently adopted regional transportation plans and evaluate climate impacts that may follow if the connector is built.

Troy Moon, the city’s sustainability coordinator, told the council the study is in line with the city’s goal of finding alternatives to passenger vehicles. Without better alternatives, Moon said people will continue to drive cars.

Councilor Andrew Zarro, a member of the sustainability committee, said a goal of the city’s One Climate Future plan is to reduce the number of passenger vehicles on the road. The last similar study was conducted more than 10 years ago, Zarro said, and since that time there has been a recession, a pandemic, and other world events.

“We owe it to ourselves to invest in figuring out” if the connector is still a good idea, he said.

Councilor April Fournier said it is “hard to un-construct a highway,” and it makes little sense to push forward without informed plans.

“This gives us time to walk the walk,” Fournier said.

Councilor Tae Chong estimated more than 40,000 people commute into Portland each day, which creates traffic congestion.

It’s unclear what the council action means for the future of a Gorham turnpike spur.

Representatives of the Maine Turnpike Authority did not immediately respond to questions about the impact the resolution might have on plans for the spur. 

Trail design

The council also unanimously approved an agreement between the city and Maine Department of Transportation to design the proposed Fore River Parkway Trail.

The trail is part of a land swap the council agreed to more than a year ago to create a trail corridor on the peninsula near the Fore River Parkway. The trail will extend from the Union Branch Pathway at Park Avenue near Hadlock Field to the Fore River Parkway.

The expected cost of the trail is $1.6 million. The council action on Monday only approved the design, which will cost $40,500, including $32,400 in federal funding, which reduces the city’s share to $8,100.

To create the trail, the state agreed to take ownership of the International Marine Terminal on Commercial Street, which the city previously leased. The state also agreed to take ownership of the Cliff Island ferry landing.

The trail would replace an abandoned rail line from State Street to Hadlock Field. The council previously allocated $25,000 in the 2023 capital improvement project budget for designing the trail, which will close one of the final gaps in a network of pathways on the peninsula. It is also expected to contribute to One Climate Future and the city’s climate action plan to improve bike and pedestrian access.

Most of the costs to create the trail will be funded by the state, and the city will only have to fund finishing touches, such as benches. This proposed trail will connect to other trails and would connect Park Avenue to the Portland Transportation Center near Thompson’s Point.

While the 2021 land swap resulted in a revenue loss for the city from transferring the International Marine Terminal, city staff anticipated long-term savings from no longer having to maintain the Cliff Island wharf.

Updated July 14, 2022, to clarify Portland’s request for a study of the Gorham connector project. 

City will allow homeless campsites if shelters are full

In response to the homelessness crisis facing Portland, city staff will not remove unauthorized campsites when emergency shelters are at capacity.

In a communication to the City Council Monday night, staff said action won’t be taken unless a campsite is determined to be dangerous or a health hazard.

Unauthorized camping is illegal on public property, although the city has seen an increase in this activity in recent years, largely attributed to the increase in homelessness.

The new policy states that enforcement and social services go hand-in-hand; that “most” campsite residents will be given at least 24 hours’ notice before being removed, and staff will work with community partners to make sure resources are offered to those living at the camps.

It also states personal belongings removed from campsites will be stored for the owners to collect. Two years ago, the Police Department was criticized for collecting various encampment belongings and throwing them away.

Mayor Kate Snyder said this is not a change in policy, but that staff has clarified the policy language, especially regarding what to do with personal belongings.

Also Monday night, interim Police Chief Heath Gorham outlined his department’s policy that social services and medical facilities are preferred to arresting homeless individuals who commit “low-level, quality-of-life offenses.”  Such offenses, listed in a memo to councilors, include criminal trespassing, disorderly conduct, indecent conduct such as urinating in public, possession of a scheduled drug, and public drinking.

While citing or arresting someone for these crimes may still be required, the memo stated these actions rarely provide a long-term positive impact on public safety, and that referral to social services is preferred.

Officers will determine if a suspect is homeless, and then decide if diversion is the best option. Officers can also determine if an individual needs medical attention and transport them to a hospital instead of taking enforcement action.

— Colin Ellis

Council forms Ethics Committee, affirms right to abortion

The City Council on Monday night created an Ethics Committee composed of Mayor Kate Snyder and Councilors April Fournier, Tae Chong, and Andrew Zarro. They will serve through December, when new members will be appointed.

Councilors also unanimously resolved that the city supports access to abortion.

Snyder said the ethics panel is an “as-needed” committee that won’t meet regularly. It will convene to review possible violations of the city’s ethics code and ethics complaints received by the council.

She said the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade was a “very big issue,” and said the court “has failed us.”

“We commit to taking all actions that safeguard health clinics and those seeking abortions,” the mayor said.

As someone who does not want to have children, Councilor Victoria Pelletier said this is an important action for the city to take. She said the Supreme Court decision will impact many disenfranchised communities, and people will ultimately die because the court overturned Roe v. Wade.

“Being able to have this discussion is a huge privilege,” Pelletier said.

Councilor Tae Chong said the council resolve is about the fundamental right to health care, and the council was affirming people’s right to health and dignity.

Chong said he became concerned about what would happen to institutions like Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, and even something like freedom of speech when former President Donald Trump was elected in 2016.

“They say every vote matters,” he said. “If you don’t vote, this is what happens.”

— Colin Ellis