Cover Story: Leading the Way
By Douglas Rooks
For the past six years, tourism has been Maine's leading industry - surpassing wood products and papermaking as a share of the gross state product (GSP). But in many ways Maine's tourism industry has held a prominent place in the nation's heart for a long time, observes Vaughn Stinson, president of the Maine Tourism Association. "The appeal of Maine is in many ways the same both for the people who live here and those who want to visit us. Safe neighborhoods, beautiful surroundings and communities that care about each other are what we have in common," he said.
State planners who began the push to develop tourism-friendly transportation policy, including the concept of "car-free vacations," in earlier administrations are beginning to see the fruits of these investments. The process has not only diversified the travel modes the state considers important, but it can have mutual benefits for both tourism and transportation sectors. Ron Roy, director of MaineDOT's Office of Passenger Transportation, said, "The initiatives we're studying have their start in congestion relief and commuter travel, but they will all benefit the tourism industry as well," he said. "It does fit together."
At the start of transportation planning for tourism is the reality that most visitors come here by car, and initiatives to maintain and improve roads and bridges directly affect visitors' views of Maine and their willingness to visit again.
"Air travel is a huge factor in tourism elsewhere," said Stinson, "but Maine doesn't have the airport volume or the population to support a major hub. Plus, the experience of getting through airports and security is not that pleasant these days. Most people prefer another route to start their vacation." Not that the economic impact of airports is minor. Ron Roy points out that $1.5 billion in annual GSP comes from airports, and $865 million from Portland alone.
Herb Thomson, spokesman for Maine- DOT, confirms Stinson's view of visitation to Maine. "Most of our tourists are coming from the New England states and New York. Day trips are a big part of our appeal, and those people are mostly going to come by car."
A smooth ride
What this means, for tourism professionals, is that highways need to be smooth and safe year-round so that visitors' experience of Maine is pleasant.
"If you have to dodge potholes on your way up the coast," said Cathy Goodwin, president of the Greater York Chamber of Commerce, "you may decide to come back anyway, but we're facing a higher hurdle in trying to distinguish ourselves from other destinations."
Chris Fogg, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, said that good roads are particularly important for upstate venues such as Mount Desert Island, that has both a huge tourist draw and a short season.
"We have some challenges, no doubt about it," he said. "The gateway to the island for most visitors is Route 1A from Bangor, and the lack of shoulders and good pavement makes an impression." (A MaineDOT reconstruction project on this road began last year.) On the island itself, Fogg said that he's aware of the contrast between "the pristine nature of Acadia National Park, which is one of the best-maintained parks in the whole National Park system," and the often-bumpy roads that Transportation's role in tourism development Mount Desert Island is a tourism/transportation hub with a port, bus system, network of trails, confluence of highways and an airport nearby. mainedot photo Leading the way 12 Maine Trails n APRIL/MAY 2007 link villages like Northeast Harbor to the rest of the island. "There's no doubt that people notice the contrast," he said.
They get here, now what?
Getting tourists to Maine is one thing, but allowing them to move around while they're here is another issue entirely. Mount Desert Island is also host to one of the most successful recent initiatives to get people out of their cars. The Island Explorer free bus system has been running since 1999, and now carries more than 340,000 passengers per season. The bus now runs from June to October. Roy points out that, while the service began as an initiative to reduce congestion and remove large recreational vehicles from park roads, it's routinely used by island residents to reach work and shopping.
The Island Explorer concept, where MaineDOT pays for the buses and local municipalities and non-profit groups run the service, has been so successful that it has spawned a number of other seasonal bus systems, including winter runs in Bethel and Carabassett Valley, and a new summer network - the Shoreline Explorer - in York and Wells that was launched in 2006. Plans for a transit system in Freeport also are ready to go, Roy said, when the town decides to make the commitment.
Transportation does make a difference in the experience visitors have once they reach Maine, and that extends from excursion trains to ferries, buses, trolleys, bike trails and walking paths. Vaughn Stinson points out that the Casco Bay Lines ferry network in Portland Harbor, that link island residents to the mainland, also provide a daytime activity welcomed by visitors.
Passenger trains returned in 2001 with the first trips by the Downeaster, and they have been expanded by excursion runs along the Rockland Branch to Brunswick. A projected service on a portion of the Calais Branch in Ellsworth could bring trains to the MDI gateway.
Meanwhile, trail advocates are trying to expand networks that began in Portland more than a decade ago and now include portions of the Mountain Division branch, trails in northern and western Maine, and may soon include an 87-mile section of the Calais Branch to Machias. This summer, MaineDOT expects to complete the seven-mile Kennebec River Rail Trail from Augusta to Gardiner. Usage of all these trails has usually exceeded expectations from residents and visitors alike.
"People are looking for a healthy experience that gets them out of their cars and into the countryside," said Cathy Goodwin. "Anywhere we can tell visitors about walking and biking opportunities, we see a lot of interest. It's a different way to spend a day, and you see a lot of things you can't see from a car."
Coordinating these various modes of transportation is a new challenge for MaineDOT, but one that Herb Thomson sees as a significant part of the agency's job. "If we're going to serve the public, and not just build things, we have to be more aware of the uses people have for transportation, and how their expectations are changing," he said.
Economic development tool
To properly assess the growth potential for tourism as an economic development tool, the state needs to take a wider view of the costs and benefits of particular modes and different projects, according to Alex Metcalf, president of Transportation Economics and Management System in Maryland. He recently described the links between passenger train service and economic development at a workshop sponsored by the State Planning Office.
Officials in many state and federal agencies tend to take a "demand side" approach to evaluating transportation projects, considering time-savings for adding new trains and specifying the impact of construction jobs. To really understand the potential of transportation investment, Metcalf said, planners need a "supply side" analysis that considers the number of permanent jobs that can be added to a local economy, increases in property values around train stations and the development of a marketable image that appeals to visitors.
The Downeaster service is touted as a major success by Amtrak, but extending trains to Freeport, Brunswick and beyond would put the service into a different category, Metcalf said. Day trips from Boston to L.L. Bean are something different from commuting or weekend excursions by Mainers to Boston, and may represent different opportunities for downtown development in places like Freeport, he said. In other words, it may be possible to bring significant numbers of people to Maine through modes other than the automobile. Metcalf said a study his firm did for Ohio showed a positive correlation between passenger train development and overall economic growth.
Cruise ships are another important transportation growth story - and another way of getting visitors here. Stinson notes surveys showing that at least one-third of cruise passengers who make Maine a port of call later return to visit on their own - an unusually high number of repeat visitors. And while most ships call at Portland and Bar Harbor, large vessels are beginning to seek out more remote harbors such as Eastport. Maine's 3,000-mile coastline - 5,000 miles, if you count the barrier islands - is a magnet for the "super" or "ultra" yachts that are now cruising the world's oceans. "We definitely have the resource. Now we just have to provide the amenities," he said.
Paving the way for growth
Road and bridge issues, of course, remain high on everyone's agenda, including that of tourism officials. They are uniformly encouraged by the proposed $113 million transportation bond issue on the June ballot, a record amount. While the borrowing plan is seen by some as catching up to a major infrastructure deficit, there's no doubt that it is "a positive signal for those who depend on good roads," Chris Fogg said; the dollars Maine uses for transportation are just as important as the dollars it uses for marketing.
Visitors are even more sensitive to congestion and traffic jams than those who depend on roads daily, Cathy Goodwin said: "They're trying to get away from those experiences in their own back yard." That's why chambers like hers keep a close eye on construction projects that promise long-term improvements but create short-term inconvenience. In one version of bridge reconstruction plans from Portsmouth, N.H. to Kittery, two of the three Piscataqua River crossings could be closed at the same time - the Route 1 and 1B bridges, leaving only the I-95 bridge open. "Naturally, we'd prefer if it didn't happen that way," she said.
Vaughn Stinson says that the links between tourism, transportation and economic development are strong, but perhaps not always appreciated. "When voters decided to delay the Maine Turnpike widening back in the early 1990s, the project cost increased significantly," he said. "Just because you put something off does not mean the need for it goes away."
Tourism experts are hoping that same message spurs voters to support the transportation bond referendum in June and guides MaineDOT planners in the years ahead. The investment needs of tourism may be different, and perhaps more complicated, than siting an industrial facility and planning for truck and rail access, but they are equally important to the result, both tourism and transportation officials say.
"We're not going to get rid of the automobile, that's for sure," said Ron Roy. "But patterns are changing, and more people will probably get here by flying, by train, and by bus. And once they get here, they will move around differently and want different experiences." Herb Thomson added, "It's up to us to create a culture where this is possible."