One of the great things about living in Waterville and spending time downtown is that you run into all sorts of interesting people.

Take Bill Basford, for instance. Just about every day, you’ll find him at Jorgensen’s Cafe on Main Street, having breakfast or lunch, working on his laptop or chatting about a topic he’s so passionate about he’ll talk to anyone who will listen.

Basford, 69, of Fairfield, is adamant that if people drove less and walked or biked more, the city and state would be a lot richer.

“For about five years now, I’ve been trying to get people to pay attention to all the money that’s lost from our economy due to all the spending to keep all the cars going,” he said. “At least $10 billion a year is spent by people in Maine who have cars on everything from buying the car to fuel, repairs, insurance, taxes. On average, nationwide, people spend $9,000 a year on a car.”

Basford figures that nationwide, there are eight cars for every 10 people. In Maine, where there are more than 1 million vehicles, it’s nine cars for every 10 people. That $10 billion spent a year in Maine could be used to build new, energy-efficient housing right in town, so people don’t have to drive as much, he says. The problem wouldn’t be so bad if vehicles were made in Maine, or the state had oil wells or refineries, but it doesn’t, so most of that $10 billion leaves the state, he says.

“You might say it goes poof in a puff of smoke — it’s gone.”

If one adds the amount of money spent on maintaining roads and working on problems stemming from air and water pollution, the $10 billion becomes $13 billion spent on automotive-based transportation systems, according to Basford.

He describes the loss to the Maine economy as $150 million a week.

“Just by coincidence, we have 151 people in the House of Representatives in Augusta, which works out very neatly to a loss on average of $1 million a week from each House district, and nobody’s paying any attention,” he says.

A genial man, Basford is tall — 6-foot-2 — with gray hair and hazel eyes. He is very fit, since he rides his bike several times a week and drives as little as possible. He plans to retire his 19-year-old Chevrolet Lumina when it no longer passes inspection, he said.

He acknowledges that when he talks to people about his ideas involving vehicles, he gets a lot of odd reactions.

“People on the liberal side of the political spectrum tend to assume we’d have to run bus service out of every road in the area on a regular schedule, which isn’t going to happen because nobody’s got the money on any level of government to pay for that. People on the other end of the political spectrum say, ‘Oh, you want to take away my car.’ Of course, we can’t do anything like that because of the political backlash. That’s never going to happen.”

Basford’s solution is to make it easier for people to live in downtown Waterville for instance without having to use a car. The zoning could be changed to be less strict about the number of parking spaces required for each apartment unit, he says. Setback requirements could be changed so less land is required for constructing apartment buildings. And, he says, upper floors of buildings in and near downtown could be renovated for living space.

Basford recommends that when people consider moving, they move downtown.

“I tend to think within eight blocks of City Hall is nice,” he said. “If you live within eight blocks of downtown and work downtown, you don’t need to do much driving.”

A Benton native, Basford graduated from Lawrence High School in Fairfield in 1963 and obtained a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Maine in Orono in 1968. He later worked on a master’s degree in business administration at the university but did not finish it.

While serving in the U.S. Navy for close to four years, he worked on helicopter instrument flight trainers for pilots and later in civilian life designed heating and air conditioning systems for a Portland company, worked for the Naval Facilities Engineering Command in the Washington, D.C., area, took a job at the federal Department of Energy where he was charged with convincing big electrical utilities to stop burning so much oil, and then moved to California to work again for the Navy. He did a variety of jobs after that, working for Boston University as energy manager, the state of Maine Energy Office as an energy engineer, and then had an office on Common Street in Waterville, where he worked on energy studies for schools.

He helped several schools in the state get grants to convert from electric to oil heat and was instrumental in helping to get a $350,000 grant for energy efficiency — for converting schools and hospitals from electricity to oil. He also worked for about three years doing small business audits for Efficiency Maine.

He recalled visiting Waterville City Hall about two years ago and learning that 7,200 private vehicles were registered in the city — enough to fill The Concourse parking lot downtown about 12 times. (According to city tax collector Linda Cote, the city had 7,379 registered vehicles from April 1, 2014, to March 31, 2015.)

Basford shares what he knows, not only with people he meets, but also with groups that ask him to speak. He emails people about his ideas, writing “How Maine Became one of the Poor States” on the subject line, to try to get their attention.

In fact, he is always thinking of ways to get people interested. If they try to convince him fewer people would shop downtown if they don’t drive there, he says if they lived closer, they could walk or ride a bike.

“If you put a bike corral in one parking space downtown, you can have eight to 10 bikes parked in the space of one car,” he said. “You could have more people in your store if you get people down here on bikes instead of driving all the time.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter for 27 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]

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