Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling delivered the final State of the City address of his four-year term Monday night, and he shot for the stars.
While he did use the spotlight to retread some familiar ground, he also announced goals that, if reached — and that’s a big “if” — would make Maine’s largest city a very different place in the coming years.
The annual speech has served as a platform for the mayor to launch new initiatives in a community that’s often a bellwether for the rest of the state.
Some of what Strimling announced Monday night did not come as a surprise. The mayor called for publicly funded political campaigns at the local level, like a municipal version of the state’s Clean Election fund, and new rules for lobbyist disclosures, as expected.
Those are significant initiatives and Portland would be the first municipality in the state to implement them, if it does.
Mayor Strimling’s State of the City Address – January 14, 2019
Posted by City of Portland, Maine on Monday, 14 January 2019
He also reiterated his strong support for a number of other proposals that are already being pursued at one level or another in Portland: Voting rights for noncitizens living here legally, requiring city contractors to pay living wages, and mandating that employers provide paid sick leave for workers.
The mayor also pushed for the city to finally install universal pre-kindergarten classes for the city’s four-year-olds, which has long lingered on Portland’s wish list, and more protections for tenants, including 90-day notices before evictions and requirements that landlords accept low-income housing vouchers.
Nobody who has been following local politics for the past year or two should have been surprised by Strimling’s mention of any of those causes, which have come up before.
But he added some new, big and — in some cases — expensive things to his to-do list for 2019.
Here are the most striking ones:
Make all Portland schools solar-powered
Strimling got a big applause when he mentioned the city’s 2,800-panel solar array at the former Ocean Avenue landfill that went online last month.
But, he said, “that’s not even the tip of the melting iceberg of what we can and must do.”
The mayor said he wants to work with local Casco Bay High School students to install six more solar arrays on city schools, which he said would produce enough energy to “reduce the carbon footprint of our schools to almost zero.”
Bring in light rail for commuters
Strimling said he wants to get cars off the road. To do that, he said he wants to buy 15 more buses for the METRO fleet. That would have buses arriving at the most popular downtown stops every 15 minutes, a frequency that studies show is necessary to increase ridership, he said.
Currently, there are stretches when riders must wait an hour for a bus to arrive, the mayor said.
But he didn’t stop at proposing to buy buses. Strimling also said he wants to bring back commuter trains. He said he wants to spend 2019 studying the feasibility of restoring train service to the eastern waterfront, which could open up commuting lines at least to Falmouth.
“We have the rails, we have the bridge,” he said, adding that hybrid electric rail cars could remove between 600 and 800 cars from the congested Commercial Street corridor that has vexed waterfront workers and city officials alike.
Rename a school after Gerald Talbot
Gerald Talbot, 88, was a trailblazer in Portland and in the state. He took part in the 1963 March on Washington in which the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.
He was the first African American elected to the Maine House of Representatives in 1972 and helped found the local chapter of the NAACP. He sponsored a bill to remove racial epithets from 12 place names in Maine.
On Monday night, Strimling said he wants to rename a Portland school for Talbot, a proposal that received a big applause from the assembled crowd. The mayor said he asked Talbot and school leaders before making the proposal, but he didn’t say which school should be renamed.
The city in the fall opened the new Amanda C. Rowe Elementary School, named for the late longtime school nurse who advocated for an HIV-positive child during the AIDS scare and pushed for life-saving defibrillators in the buildings, among other things.
Voters in 2017 approved a $64 million bond to renovate four other deteriorating schools in the city. Several schools in the city have not yet been named for people, including Ocean Avenue Elementary School and the East End Community School.
At least as delivered Monday night, Strimling didn’t propose a specific revenue stream to fund some of the more ambitious proposals on the list.
He said before the address, however, that he intended for the details of his proposals to be worked out with the City Council and other stakeholders. A Clean Election fund could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, and any solar array of similar size to the recently activated landfill project could cost more than $1.5 million. Buses aren’t cheap, either, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece.
All of this work could fit into a bond smaller than the one Portland voters approved two years ago to rebuild local schools, for what it’s worth. Also, Strimling could look for creative ways to pay for projects by partnering with industry leaders who would accept payback over time, as the city did with ReVision Energy on the aforementioned landfill solar array.
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