Can fees at parks and on ferries in Maine be used to encourage cyclists and pedestrians?

July 31, 2017 at 10:01 am Leave a comment

Originally published as monthly Treading Lightly column in the Maine Sunday Telegram’s Source section.

Our family just went to Peaks Island for a friend’s wedding. We pedaled down to the Casco Bay Ferry terminal and locked our bikes, deciding not to pay the extra $6.50 per adult bike and $3.25 per child to bring them with us. It raised the perennial questions I have about whether fees encourage or discourage efficiencies in our transportation system – efficiencies that could reduce the need for more space for cars and more and wider roads.

The ferry offers a valuable public service and every pound we add to the boat affects its fuel economy, so it makes sense to charge something for people to bring their bikes. It’s the fee ratio that seems a little off. The charge for any non-commercial vehicle under 6,000 pounds traveling to Peaks Island varies by day of the week during the summer – so I’ll use the middle-of-the-fee-structure example: $54.95 (that’s after subtracting the driver’s passenger ticket cost).

Arriving on the island, I watched a Chevy Suburban roll toward the ferry dock. A Suburban weighs 5,896 pounds. If cars were charged by weight (they aren’t), the driver would have paid less than one cent per pound to bring it to Peaks. The $6.50 adult bike fee isn’t by weight either. But if it were, my 25-pound bike – a fairly standard weight – would have cost twenty-six cents per pound. (Note: any passenger can purchase discounted weekly or monthly bike fares – and with an annual pass, the bike rides for free.)

That’s weight – what about space? For those headed to Vinalhaven on the State Ferry Service, a critical and valued link to the island with our largest year-round population, it costs $16.50 extra to bring a bike. It costs $49.50 extra for a car. The bicycle is one-third the cost of the vehicle but weighs a tiny fraction of the car and takes up only 1/10th the space.

CarBikePort Rack - Photo Credit to Cyclehoop (2)

Photo credit: Cyclehoop

Another fee structure that doesn’t encourage alternative transportation is that of our beautiful state parks. Our family is hoping to visit Crescent Beach State Park in Cape Elizabeth soon. If we bike there, we’ll pay $12. If we drive there…we’ll pay $12.

Not everyone can get somewhere like Crescent Beach without a car, but shouldn’t we encourage those who can? And for those who need to drive, couldn’t we set our fees to inspire more of us to carpool? (The state tries to make it equitable by charging every Maine resident the same price. Also, an annual Maine State Parks vehicle pass allows all the occupants of up to a 17-passenger vehicle free day-use.)

Why should we care about this? In a word: parking. In another word: money. Where there are cars, there will be demand for parking. Since on average vehicles are in use only 5 percent of the time, according to three different analyses by transportation policy advisor Paul Barter they spend the rest of their lives parked. And parking costs money – big, big money.

It’s expensive to build a parking space – even in a dirt lot – and to maintain it. Think of excavation, fill, asphalt if it’s paved, sealing, and providing lighting and any curbing and sidewalks. But maintenance, really? Yes: grading for dirt lots, resurfacing every five to ten years for paving, snow removal and sanding, sweeping, landscaping, controlling access (e.g., entrance gates), fee collection, enforcement, insurance, etc.

There are roughly 735 parking spaces at Crescent Beach State Park. The average annual cost for a space in a paved suburban surface lot on “free” land, like that owned by the citizens of Maine at Crescent Beach, is $671. That price includes amortizing the construction cost over time ($326/year), plus annual maintenance ($345/year). This according to the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, an independent research organization based in British Columbia that is dedicated to practical solutions for transportation problems. That totals $493,185 per year.

The lot was built in the 1960s, so one can question whether the initial cost has been paid off. Also, Crescent Beach’s lot isn’t plowed during the winter, and I’m not sure how often they’re able to sweep and maintain the pavement under all that sand. So let’s say it only costs us a quarter as much? That’s still $123,296. Now think of all the other lots we build and maintain across Maine.

We could price differently. I called nearby states to see what they charge for someone who gets to one of their parks on foot or by bike. Mark Steffen, Press Secretary for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation & Recreation, seemed a little surprised by my question. “If someone accesses one of your parks as a pedestrian or bicyclist, they are charged a fee?” he asked. “That’s the not case here. We charge a day-use parking fee for vehicles. All our state parks are free for walkers or bicyclists to enter for the day.” I discovered a few more states doing the same, including Montana. Or we could be like Nevada and charge a nominal fee for walkers and bicyclists: $1.

Of course, you may ask whether price actually changes behavior. With parking, the answer is yes.

According to the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, Motorists tend to be particularly sensitive to parking price because it is such a direct charge. Compared with other out-of-pocket expenses, parking fees are found to have a greater effect on vehicle trips…For example, a $1 per trip parking charge is likely to cause the same reduction in vehicle travel as a fuel price increase averaging $1.50 to $2.00 per trip.”

None of our fees are easy to change, of course. In the case of Casco Bay Lines, “It can be done, it just requires a good bit of thoughtful public process,” General Manager Hank Berg explained in a recent call. “Then we still need to bring the results of that process to the Public Utilities Commission for vetting and permission to modify the fees.”

Here’s one timely opportunity for us to weigh in. Dwight Doughty, MaineDOT acting manager for the State Ferry Service, said in a telephone interview, “We are currently working with our Advisory Board to revamp rates for passengers, bikes, freight, etc.”

WEIGH IN

ARE THE CHARGES for bicyclists riding on Maine ferries equitable? Do the fees encourage Mainers and visitors to consider alternatives to cars? Weigh-in on the State Ferry fee structure now, while an advisory board is examining the fees. Email your input to rick.dubois@maine.gov by the end of August to have it included in the initial round of feedback.

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Entry filed under: Active Transportation, Transportation Demand Management, Transportation Infrastucture Improvements. Tags: , , , .

Wheels in mind of new transportation columnist go ’round and ’round – usually sustainably Freedom for all to ride or walk in the great outdoors

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