PORTLAND, Maine — Two years ago this month, local stakeholders and officials finished a $135,000 Commercial Street transportation study and draft master plan. The plan was aimed at easing tensions between tourists, fishermen and other local wharfside workers as increasing development put pressure on the waterfront’s main thoroughfare.
But the report came out just a little over a month before the coronavirus pandemic drastically altered local tourism and downtown work patterns. With fewer tourists and more workers telecommuting, it’s now unclear if any of the plan’s original conclusions or recommendations are meaningful going forward.
“It could not have come out at a worse time,” said Portland Waterfront Director William Needleman. “The fundamental math needs to be revisited.”
Report recommendations ranged from reducing the number of Commercial Street crosswalks to adding autonomous vehicles for shuttling passengers from one end to the other. It also suggested a roundabout at the corner of Commercial and Franklin Streets, as well as reserving some public parking spaces for waterfront workers only.
The Commercial Street master plan report was a joint project between the city, the Greater Portland Comprehensive Transportation System (an arm of the Greater Portland Council of Governments) and the Maine Department of Transportation.
Portland City Manager Jon Jenning’s hand-picked, semi-official working waterfront advisory group also had input on the project. It met regularly, from the fall of 2019 until Jennings left his post last year. Florida-based consulting firm WSP drew up the final Commercial Street report.
But things have since changed since it was issued.
“The pandemic cut the tourist numbers and the cruise ships,” said Bill Coppersmith, who has fished for lobster out of Portland for more than 40 years and was part of the working waterfront group. “But they’re coming back and there’s going to be more than ever, “
Coppersmith recalls how pre-pandemic Commercial Street congestion was so bad, he’d spend three hours going on a six mile round trip drive from his boat tied up just off Commercial Street at Union Wharf to Hamilton Marine on Presumpscot Street for parts.
“You’re losing valuable time,” he said, “and it makes it hard to stay in business that way.”
Continuing downtown hotel and office construction projects and a Veterans Administration clinic that just opened on the far end of Commercial Street will drive that change, Coppersmith said.
“We’re going to have to get together and go all through those numbers again,” he said.
It’s unclear what, if anything, will happen with the current report.
It was presented to the city’s Sustainability & Transportation Committee but no action was taken. It never made it to the City Council.
Portland’s share of the report’s $135,000 final cost was $62,710, according to Portland’s Transportation Program Manager, Bruce Hyman. The balance came from a federal grant administered by the Greater Portland Council of Governments.
Officials at the Greater Portland Council of Governments acknowledge that traffic and tourism data collected before the pandemic may not hold true in the future.
“With the pandemic, the uses may have shifted, so some modifications might make sense,” said Executive Director Kristina Egan. “But in the meantime, it’s critical to continue to make this a place that is safe for people walking, biking and taking transit, and at the same time functional for people who earn a living on the waterfront.”
Still, they see potential for the recommendations — even with the changes.
Along those lines, said Tom Bell, the organization’s spokesperson, the city could implement report recommendations that still make sense without precise data, such as consolidating crosswalks and making the center lane more accessible to pedestrians.
Portland could also reduce pedestrian crowding on sidewalks by removing obstacles, such poorly placed A-frame advertising signs, Bell said.
Needleman said he reckons it’s still too early to think about revising the report, given the unpredictability of the ongoing pandemic.
“I’m not going to judge stability until we are a few years out from this thing,” Needleman said. “Many of the presumptions in the plan need to be revisited in a post-covid world — but we’re not there yet.”