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Proposal to add more parking at Portland jetport prompts broader debate about sustainability

A map shows where a new surface parking lot would be paved behind an existing parking garage, and where an expanded cell phone lot would go.
Courtesy of Portland International Jetport
A map shows where a new surface parking lot would be paved behind an existing parking garage, and where an expanded cell phone lot would go.

A plan to build another surface parking lot at the Portland International Jetport came under the scrutiny of airport neighbors at a meeting Tuesday night.

Jetport officials said the parking is needed to meet the demands of a growing state and changing traveler habits. But for some community members, the expansion flies in the face of the region's climate goals.

The plan calls for about six acres of paving and landscaping and about 680 parking spaces, though it would ultimately create just 350 brand new spaces once the jetport finishes stormwater system upgrades. The project also includes an expanded cell phone lot.

Jetport officials have said travelers are taking longer trips since the pandemic, parking their cars for longer and putting a crunch on the jetport's existing 2,325 long-term spaces.

More than 100 people, mostly from Portland's Stroudwater neighborhood close to the jetport, turned out for Tuesday's meeting. Some expressed concern that paving over three-and-a-half acres of wood and wetlands would eliminate the sound and light buffer between their homes and the airport.

But the vast majority said they doubted the jetport had fully considered what they believed were more sustainable alternatives.

"I don't think this is a not-in-my-backyard issue at all," Woody Howard, president of the Stroudwater Neighborhood Association, said Wednesday in an interview. "I think this is about the health of Casco Bay, and of the Stroudwater River, and of the Fore River estuary."

Neighborhood residents questioned, for example, whether the jetport could raise long-term parking rates to discourage drivers from using their cars, or provide shuttle service to existing parking lots.

But airport director Paul Bradbury said the jetport would need to provide shuttles 20 hours a day, and he argued that running that service back and forth to the terminal is a less sustainable option.

"That is where you keep your carbon footprint the lowest, is by introducing the parking at the front door of the multi-modal facility," he said.

The jetport has leased space at the Maine Mall before, Bradbury added. But he said the mall is not interested in striking up another deal.

And other residents urged the jetport to launch a broader conversation about improving public transportation options — and finding ways to eliminate the number of cars on the road altogether.

"Why can't we ask the city of Portland to provide a dedicated bus line to get people to the airport? Why shouldn't we be encouraging Concord Bus Lines to bring people without their cars to the airport, the same way we go to [Boston] Logan [International Airport]?" Howard said. "Those are things that get rid of numbers of cars."

Local mass transit options to the jetport are not ideal, Bradbury acknowledged. The airport is at its busiest at 4 a.m., when METRO buses are not running. But even if local public transit options did improve, Bradbury said that many long-term parkers traveling from outside the greater Portland area may not use them.

"This is a big, rural state," he said. "Much of the state in our catchment area goes all the way to Canada and the Canada Maritimes, and all the way to North Conway and west into New Hampshire. One of the reasons that so many people come in and out of Portland and Maine is because they want to see this big, rural state. Unfortunately [in] this big rural state, many people still depend on the automobile."

Bradbury said the jetport would reevaluate the proposed location of the cell phone lot, which had prompted concern from neighbors about its proximity to wetlands.

The airport will apply to update its permits with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, and it will be up to the Portland planning board to eventually approve the entire project.

The construction and paving would be completed in phases. The jetport said it's hopeful that construction could begin this summer, though the timing depends on when and whether the project receives approval.