Stop Chicken Little: The Truth about Traffic in Portland, Maine



 Stevens Avenue



Public Concern

Air Quality

Pedestrian Accidents

Vehicle Accidents

Safety and ADA


Muskie Institute


MDOT data

SAP Lies


Brighton Avenue

Capisic Street

Deering Oaks


Stop signs


Muskie Institute Report

    The Muskie School of Public Service,  also known as The Muskie Institute, is part of the University of Maine, and is a  public policy think tank for the state of Maine. The following paper was written by four graduate students in the Spring of 1998 who looked into the controversy surrounding the Stevens project.  Statements by Councilor Charles Harlow, the Public Safety Commissioner,  in bold, are amazing, coming from a city government official. The conclusions at the end are also in bold

An Analysis of Leadership, Politics, and Ethics
in the Stevens Avenue Traffic Calming Project

by: Scott Landry, Scot Mattox, Sara Salley & Celeste Viger for PPM 615 ;
Richard Barringer, Instructor

May 14,1998

The Stevens Avenue Project originated in 1992 with the purpose of calming traffic in the Deering Highlands area along Stevens Avenue in Portland. City Councilor Charles Harlow proposed that the City of Portland spend $55, 000 on an area traffic study. His request followed from communication with Paula Craighead, then member of the Deering Highlands Neighborhood Association, who noted that there was a problem with accidents on Stevens Avenue due to congestion.  

What ensued was the hiring of an engineering consulting group, Deluca-Hoffman Associates of South Portland, to survey and document the traffic patterns along Stevens Avenue. Deluca-Hoffman investigated the traffic along Stevens Avenue on May 7, 1993 between the hours of 7:15 a.m.--9:15 and 12:45--1:45 p.m. Although Stevens Avenue was examined in isolation, and the study drew no conclusive evidence of traffic problems therein, the City of Portland implemented some traffic calming measures (zigzagged curbing, raised crosswalks). This was met by citizen opposition.  

For the purposes of this project, six individuals were selected for interviews to discuss the traffic patterns of Stevens Avenue, the measures exercised to date, and the political, leadership, and ethical issues which have arisen throughout. From the interviewees, the group also obtained pertinent photographs, documents relevant to the traffic calming project, and Deluca-Hoffman Associate's Phase One study of traffic patterns along Stevens Avenue. Each of the six interviews is summarized and included as an appendix to this paper.  



In the summer of 1997, work crews with the City of Portland began installing a set of traffic calming devices along Stevens Avenue, a north-south thoroughfare classified as a "minor arterial" on City maps. The reaction of area commuters and residents was anything but minor.  Within a month, most of the project was scrapped as a direct result of the public outcry against it. 

The specific measure prompting most of the protests was zigzagged curbing installed to change a broad, straight road into a narrower, curving one. The goal of these measures was to reduce speed. The concept behind the measures was that wide roads without curbs tend to encourage drivers to go faster than the posted speed limit, while drivers are naturally inclined to slow down when the road becomes narrower or more curvy.  

It had been argued by some for years that speeding was a problem on Stevens Avenue. Neighborhood residents had complained about speeders and expressed their concerns for the safety of the hundreds of students who must cross the street every school day. A study performed by consultants DeLuca-Hoffman Associates in 1993 concluded that drivers exceeded the posted speed limit on the street on a regular basis, and sometimes failed to yield to pedestrians

Also in 1993, an advisory committee to the City Council started meeting and in 1994 began holding a number of public meetings. The following year, after soliciting public comments on a draft report, the committee issued its final report recommending the zigzagged curbing, as well as raised crosswalks and intersections, more traffic signals and flared curbs. However, between late 1995, when the Council approved the recommendations, and the Summer of 1997, when construction began on the curbing the traffic calming project received little attention. Residents claimed they were caught off guard by it. "Traffic project took many by surprise," (Portland Press Herald, August 4 1997, IB, 4B.)  

Once some of the curbs were installed, hundreds of residents and others opposed to the project made their views known. They criticized the traffic calming measures, particularly the curbing, as wasteful, ill conceived and counter productive. Opponents claimed the measures would endanger cyclists, slow police and emergency vehicles, confuse drivers, make winter plowing impossible, and eliminate parking for people who patronized businesses located on the street. Id. 

The City responded quickly to the outcry. In early August, City Manager Robert Ganley ordered a halt to construction and the City Council agreed to remove the curbing and revise the traffic calming plan. A month later, the City Council decided to limit the traffic calming measures to a single raised intersection, several raised crosswalks, a set of no parking signs and barrels at crosswalks, and a new traffic fight. The measures were designated as temporary; their permanent existence would depend on the results of an evaluation study the following Spring. "New plan approved for Stevens Avenue," (Portland Press Herald, September 4, 1997, IA, 13A.)  

Portland hired a new Traffic Engineer, Larry Ash, at about the same time the Council was issuing its revised plan for Stevens Avenue. Early in his tenure, Mr. Ash initiated a policy proposal to govern the City's response  to future requests for traffic calming. If enacted by the City Council, the proposal would require that certain traffic studies be performed before traffic calming devices are approved. The studies would have to demonstrate, through the application of a mathematical formula, that there was a sufficient traffic problem justifying action by the City. In addition, seventy-five percent of residents in the affected area would have to approve any proposed measures.  

Although the proposal comes too late to govern the outcome on Stevens Avenue, the City is currently engaged in an extensive evaluation of the devices installed in accordance with the revised traffic calming measures. The City is studying traffic volume and typical speeds, pedestrian traffic and accident rates, as well as surveying and interviewing commuters, residents and emergency personnel who use the street. The City's report will be issued this month.

II.  Leadership, Management, and the Stevens Avenue Project


A.   Politics and Influence in the Portland City Council

The Portland City Council is partly to blame for the implementation of the largely unsuccessful Stevens Avenue traffic calming project. Leadership by the city council--or lack thereof--was a primary cause of the disorganization and lack of support for the project. The Portland City Council's failure was threefold. First, it neglected to properly verify whether a speeding problem existed. Second, it did not consider and weigh alternative solutions. Third, it did not enlist the support of a majority of neighborhood residents who would be affected by the traffic calming. The breakdown followed from the entrance of several political factors which clouded the original objective to resolve "speeding" on Stevens Avenue with several other objectives.  

The Portland City Council first heard of the traffic situation on Stevens Avenue from a group of residents in the area who felt there was a speed problem. While records supported that speeding and accidents did occur on Stevens Avenue, the extent of the problem on Stevens Avenue relative to other similar city streets was unknown. Instead of making an effort to understand the scale of the alleged problem on Steven's Ave, the City Council turned over the "problem" to the city planners who developed a traffic calming strategy intended to beautify and calm Stevens Avenue. Only after reviewing these traffic calming plans did the City  Council decide to hire a Consultant to assess the extent of the problem on Stevens Avenue. Charles Harlow, a city councilor during this period of events, admitted that the city council liked the traffic calming plan, but made no mention of alternative strategies that were being considered to calm traffic on Stevens Avenue. (personal interview, 4/14/98) He claimed that the city council hoped that a consultant could produce findings that would support the Stevens Avenue traffic calming project. 

Regarding the selection of a consultant, Harlow stated: "Basically, to find a consultant, you do two things. First you go out of town. Second, you make sure they carry a brief case. Then, you tell them what you want them to find out. If you tell them to tell you what time it is, then they can make a case with facts to tell you what time it is. They might steal your watch doing it, but they will tell you what you want them to tell you." [personal interview, 4/14/98; (emphasis mine)

Following receipt of desired results obtained by the hired consultants, Deluca-Hoffman Associates of South Portland, the city council attempted to sell its case to the public through hearings and flyers presenting traffic statistics on Stevens Avenue. However, in the absence of competitive strategies such as increased speed limit enforcement, coupled with only limited interest in the issue, there was little opposition to traffic calming at that time. Finally, several issues tied into the traffic calming project caused the city council's original objective to reduce speed on Stevens Avenue to become clouded. These influential issues were:

1) $120,000 in federal funds could be drawn if the project on Stevens Avenue were approved. Though these funds were not speed-related monies, the grant application written depicted the project in a way that met the criteria for such funding. This created a $120,000 incentive for the implementation of the traffic calming project.  

2) The State of Maine had a number of interests in the project, which included emission reduction goals. Also, the state was interested in the Stevens Avenue project as an "experimental case" to be studied for its applicability to other traffic situations across Maine. The State approved $1,000,000 to resurface Stevens Avenue as part of the traffic calming project. This created more inertia in the progression of the project. 

3) Finally, Portland city planners also had an "experimental" attitude about the Stevens Avenue project, in that it would be studied to determine its applicability to other Portland streets.

             Essentially, the failure of the Portland City Council to properly assess the problem of speeding on Stevens Avenue, its failure to determine alternative approaches to resolve the problem, and the clouding of issues and objectives associated with the project, illustrate a clear failure of leadership by city council members.                                                              

B. Organization and Leadership among Neighborhood Constituencies

Brian Peterson is probably the more vocal and knowledgeable citizen opponent of the Stevens Avenue Project (SAP) . He lives near Stevens Avenue on Prospect Street and has a son who attends Lincoln Middle School. Early on, he wondered; "Why are they doing this?" and set out to find the facts. He felt early on that there was a "hidden agenda" there. He has been very opposed to this project from its inception, feeling it is an example of political favoritism, irresponsible use of government power and money, and a project whose foremost advocates used lies and deceit to further their cause. Peterson states: "The Stevens Avenue traffic calming project is a safety project (which does not make an already safe road any safer), disguised as a clean air project (whose methods make the air dirtier), which is supposed to beautify Stevens Ave, but actually makes the Avenue look like a huge pinball machine!"  

Mr. Peterson chronicles the Stevens Avenue traffic calming project as beginning June, 1992. Paula Craighead, a member of the Deering Highlands Neighborhood Association, heard an accident occur on Stevens Avenue. She found that a vehicle had almost struck a crossing guard. While stopping to avoid striking the crossing guard, the car was rear-ended by another vehicle. Ms. Craighead subsequently wrote a letter to George Flaherty (then Director of Portland's Department of Public Works) and stated that there was a problem with accidents on Stevens Avenue due to congestion.

From this concern, city council member Charles Harlow asked the council to spend $55,000 on a study of traffic problems in the Stevens Ave. area. The engineering consulting firm of Deluca-Hoffman Associates of South Portland was hired by the Portland City Council in February 1992 to collect data and analyze potential traffic problems on Stevens Avenue. The Deluca group enlisted the help of approximately forty volunteers in its data collection. Neighborhood residents, temporary personnel, and others collected data on May 7, 1993. In a report presented to the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation Committee,  DeLuca-Hoffman Associates describe their collection as "including all vehicular and pedestrian turning movements as well as the license plate study and automatic traffic recorder counts. This provided for overlapping data which allowed for checking and adjustment of volumes among the corridor." (p.4) The data was collected between the hours of 7:15 and 9:15 a.m., and 12:45 to 1:45 p.m. at various intersections along Stevens Avenue.

The study concluded--among other things--that speeding was a problem. This resulted in the City's initiation of traffic calming methods designed to slow vehicles. In order to fund this project with federal grant money, the city filed an application stating that the moneys would be used to implement traffic calming methods which would: 1) slow traffic an average of 10 mph to make the street safer for bicyclists and pedestrians, 2) reduce pollution, and 3) beautify the area. The first phase of this project was implemented and generated an overwhelming negative response by motorists using and residents living in the area. Subsequently, the city removed most of the traffic calming methods and left a scaled‑down version. This scaled‑down version will be evaluated on its effectiveness in the near future.

Mr. Peterson vigorously led the citizen opposition. Essentially, he contends that there is really no--nor has there been--any traffic problem on Stevens Avenue. He asserts that there is nothing to fix and maintains that the project is a waste of time, effort, and money, and a major inconvenience to area residents. Mr. Peterson concentrates his opposition to the SAP by arguing that the Deluca study, when interpreted properly, does not support the traffic calming argument proposed. According to Peterson, the study does not prove that speeding vehicles and pedestrian accidents are a problem. He has problems with the methodology of the study and brings some serious relevant arguments to bear. 

He has participated with other citizens who also opposed SAP. He and Eric (Earl) Mercer (a citizen who resides on the North End of Stevens Avenue) distributed informational pamphlets as part of the "Save Stevens Avenue Committee" and gathered 475 signatures on a petition to stop the traffic calming by Stevens Avenue area residents which were submitted to Portland City Hall. These efforts generated 40 phone calls a day to the city manager at one time, Peterson contends. He feels it is irresponsible for the city to spend $1.2 million on lies. Brian Peterson has spent approximately $3,000 of his own money fighting the traffic calming proposals.  

Mr. Peterson concludes that when the City of Portland applied for federal funding for the SAP, they masked the project as a "clean air" and "beautification" project  which would also make the road safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. This, he notes, differs from the original justifications for the project (speeding vehicles and pedestrian/motor vehicle accidents) as the Deluca study argues. Peterson contends that the proposed traffic calming efforts will actually cause more pollution (by slowing vehicles down), make the road uglier (with more signs and traffic lights, etc.) and less safe for pedestrians and bicyclists. He sums up the proponents motivations as this; "The Stevens Avenue Project is irresponsible leadership and city government .... it is a favor from the city council to Paula Craighead."

C. Leadership in the "Structural Frame"

Despite the leadership and  management failures illustrated by the Stevens Avenue project, the project had a positive outcome in the form of the proposed policy guidelines for responding to future traffic calming requests. Whether or not the proposal is in fact a direct result of the Stevens Avenue project, it has the potential for preventing a future recurrence of some of the same problems associated with Stevens Avenue. Most importantly, the proposal provides a consistent, rational and objective way to measure the traffic conditions on a particular street. It is designed to eliminate the possibility that a single complaint or incident, blown out of proportion, could prompt inappropriate actions. It also allows citizens a direct voice in the decision to implement traffic calming devices, by requiring three-fourths of affected residents to approve the measures. This would prevent political representatives from responding to the interests of a few citizens at the expense of others and make it more difficult for a politician to push an unpopular project through the political process.  

The proposed system for evaluating traffic calming requests also serves as an illustration of a leader responding to the Stevens Avenue issue within the "structural frame" of organizational leadership orientation. Larry Ash, who developed the proposal, addressed the issue by establishing an organizational structure for dealing with public demands for traffic calming. The proposal sets forth clearly and precisely how such demands will proceed through the system, so that the City will treat similar demands in a similar way. The focus of the proposal is on objective facts, not on political influence or secondary agendas. It is our conclusion that this kind of approach was seriously lacking in the City's handling of the Stevens Avenue project.

III Ethics in the Stevens Avenue Project

If it is accepted that elected officials have an ethical obligation to promote the interests of their constituencies over their personal interests, then the Portland City Council may be labeled as unethical in its examination of and action pertaining to the Stevens Avenue Project. The Council's own Charles Harlow has admitted the ease with which an organization can persuade an outside entity to render an evaluation in accordance with the organizations desired outcomes. This is neither what is best for the people, nor is it likely what the majority of people want. In essence, it is a sanctioned manipulation of the facts by officials to sway public opinion in their favor while utilizing the public's money to do so.  

The Portland City Council's failure to explore alternative solutions to alleged problems on Stevens Avenue, added to the charge issued to Deluca-Hoffman Associates to study traffic patterns of a particular street in isolation, illustrates Bok's contention that organized societies are threatened by deceit, and excessive secrecy. In some vein, any solicitation of a consultant's advice may be construed as deceitful and excessively secret. Top managers and/or elected officials can commission a consultant (in private) to find exactly what they want the populace to hear and sanction.


 (EDITORS NOTE: emphasis  is mine; BDP).