A Fresh Start
By Lauren Corey, MBTA President
It’s a time-honored ritual. Every year, the Maine Legislature rushes through the final hours of the session, anxious to get home for summer. It can be a tough, hand wringing time for organizations like ours. We had unfinished business on the docket, and we all were watching anxiously to see what would happen to LD 1790, “An Act to Secure Maine’s Transportation Future.”
The legislature did finally act on LD 1790, with substantial majorities in both the House and the Senate voting to pass it. That vote came after language was removed from the bill – what some of us would call “the guts” – that would have established new revenue sources for Maine’s aging and underfunded transportation system. It was an important victory – even if it wasn’t the absolute victory we had been hoping for. The legislature was sending us a message, we have a strong well of support in the legislature, but they need more time to weigh the funding options. In bringing transportation funding back from the grave, we’ve now got the bones; we just need to put the meat on them.
The vote on LD 1790 came close on the heels of the spring election where Maine voters resoundingly approved the $112.9 million transportation bond. That was another effort that MBTA members had thrown significant energy and support behind, and the 3-to-1 voter margin reminds us that everyday Maine citizens understand just how vital good roads, safe bridges and convenient access to rail, ports and airports are to our future. As the newly elected president of the MBTA, I am honored to follow in the footsteps of Scott Leach and Tim Folster who started this discussion in earnest during their terms as president. They worked with the MBTA leadership to define the issues and establish the agenda that has guided us to this point. Many people have helped us along the way, as well, including John Melrose and Maria Fuentes who have been invaluable in providing insight and knowledge of policy. We also had outstanding leadership from LD 1790’s sponsor, Senator Dennis Damon (Hancock), his co-chair on the Transportation Committee, Representative Boyd Marley (Portland), who fought vigorously for its passage, and the majority of the committee members who threw themselves into the effort of getting this bill passed, rallied their colleagues and gave inspiring speeches on the floor of the House and Senate.
We also received help from many members of the coalition we formed, most notably ACM’s John Butts and Eldon Morrison, and Dana Connors and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. We are grateful to Dale Hanington of Maine Motor Transport Association (MMTA) who supported the bill in its original form, and who generously donated editorial space in two Bangor Daily News supplements, so we could get our message to readers. Brian Bouchard, the chair of MMTA, has been expressing the need to fix our roads and bridges consistently in that association’s magazine. Other coalition members like staff and members of PACTS and BACTS helped, and many who are too numerous to name here. We will need all these allies and more – plus every MBTA member – as we make a fresh start this coming fall and winter. We certainly have our work cut out for us.
First, we will be working with the Transportation Committee as it studies jurisdiction and funding issues related to the collector and state aid road network. The Appropriations and Transportation committees will be looking at how the state funds Maine State Police operations, hopefully resolving the inequities that have too much of that money coming from the Highway Fund, further straining the limited resources available to transportation. We also need to step up our efforts to educate members of the Appropriations Committee and others in legislative leadership as we ask them to make transportation a higher legislative priority.
Finally, I would like to thank all of you who have given so generously of your time and money to support the work of the MBTA’s leadership and staff. If you have ever questioned how important the work we do is, just read this issue’s cover story about how great a role transportation plays in the state’s economic development. There is no doubt that transportation keeps Maine – and our economy – on the move. Meanwhile, I hope to see many of you at our Aroostook County meeting in August and the upcoming MBTA convention in September. Have a great summer!
Forging the links between transportation and economic development
By Douglas Rooks
From the perspective of transportation and infrastructure support, there are at least two ways to view the 2007 legislative session. On a positive note, lawmakers approved and voters resoundingly ratified on June 12 the largest transportation bond issue ever considered in Maine. The $112.9 million bond was favored by nearly 72 percent of the voters, continuing an historic pattern where highway and transportation bonds are regularly approved by at least 2-to-1 margins. Voters will consider another, smaller transportation bond issue next year.
The lion’s share of this year’s bond – $100 million – went to the depleted capital budget for highways and bridges. MaineDOT cancelled over $200 million worth of projects in the past two years, and while the department intends to spend $840 million over the next biennium, it has also identified another $375 million in unmet needs that will not be funded. The regular Highway Fund budget, however, showed a disturbing trend. As approved by the legislature, revenues from fuel taxes and other sources are expected to decline, leaving the fiscal year 2008-09 budget with 1.5 percent less, in unadjusted dollars, than is projected to be spent in the current biennium.
The reduction continues a long-term drop in the proportion of state spending going to transportation. From 26 percent of state spending as recently as the 1970s, transportation would account for less than 11 percent in the next biennium, another one percent drop from the current budget. MaineDOT projects even steeper cuts in its own budget, 2.7 percent, and a precipitous drop in highway and bridge capital improvements – down $28.5 million, or nearly 30 percent, from the last biennium. Lauren Corey, MBTA’s newly elected president, is acutely aware of the challenges provided by the deferred work on the state’s transportation networks, and the need to catch up to current needs. Only then, she said, can the state truly start planning the necessary investments to connect Maine’s transportation needs with its economic wellbeing.
“Transportation is the underpinning of the economy,” she said. “Without good roads, rail connections, and port facilities, the state can’t grow,” she said. Many experts believe that the state only has to look to the Maine Turnpike Authority’s long-term strategy of steady investment – through projects like ongoing maintenance, the Widening, new interchanges and modernization of its service plazas – to see the positive economic impacts transportation can have. MBTA’s Corey is pleased that LD 1790, “An Act to Secure Maine’s Transportation Future” received strong votes in the Maine House and- Senate, indicating that there is a move toward a long-term investment strategy on the state level. Still, she expressed strong concern that the lion’s share of the funding was removed from the bill. [See story on page 16].
Corey said that the dependence on transportation of such traditional industries as papermaking and wood products is well established, but newer industries like tourism are no less connected to the movement of goods and people. “We need to get more businesses involved in partnerships,” she said. “We have to make the case in an unmistakable way.”
Fortunately, the connection between good transportation and a strong economy is becoming increasingly well established. Laurie Lachance, president of the Maine Development Foundation and a former state economist, recently prepared for MBTA a white paper on “The Importance of Transportation Investment: 30 Key Economic Facts.”
Lachance’s paper reviews some startling deficits in Maine’s highway and bridge system, including the fact that 31 percent of all major roads are in “poor or mediocre” condition, and that 22 percent of the state system is seasonally posted, shutting down economic activity on 1,854 miles of highway.
By quantifying such apparently non-economic variables as safety (one-third of all crashes are related to poor road design), emergency response times (fire trucks must arrive within 20 minutes to save a building) and vehicle maintenance (immense wear and tear from frost heaves and potholes), the report makes a powerful case for the financial havoc caused by under-investment ($1.1 billion and 200 lives are lost every year in motor vehicle accidents).
Positive economic facts include the number of jobs provided by transportation in Maine (15,000, or eight percent of the workforce), 20 percent of household budgets spent on transportation ($10,500 per household), and a high dependence on roads and bridges for both freight (85 percent) and passengers (95 percent). Transportation is second only to housing as a proportion of household spending. Since writing the report, the Maine Economic Growth Council has integrated transportation into its annual Measures of Growth report as one of 26 indicators of economic health (pavement quality earned a “red flag” this year.)
Discussing the report recently in an interview, Lachance said she was surprised at how pervasive the economic effects of transportation really are. When the state makes a significant investment in transportation infrastructure – like the recent $7.1 million bypass constructed jointly by the Maine Turnpike Authority and MaineDOT in Gray – there are jobs and good salaries. Even beyond the economy, “It touches every aspect of life in Maine. At the level of business, family life, individual freedom and mobility and maintaining our environment, it’s a huge concern,” she said.
When businesses are considering expanding or relocating, access to adequate transportation runs second only to availability of skilled labor as a decision-making factor, she said – and well ahead of taxes, zoning, and energy costs. Despite the current challenge facing Maine’s transportation networks, she believes both the public and policymakers will respond. “Not doing it is just not a viable option,” she said. “When you wait too long to make improvements, there’s a huge economic toll.”
While transportation investment may not seem to be as glamorous as research and development bond issues, she said that it is equally important. She offers an analogy with the K-12 educational system and higher education to make the point: “Transportation is a foundational investment. If we don’t have it, the other investments aren’t going to work. Just as we wouldn’t abandon our schools to shift funding to higher education, we can’t neglect transportation. It’s way too important.”
Some of the business case studies MDF has done underline these points. Jackson Labs, a renowned leader of Maine’s high-tech sector, has been a major beneficiary of state R&D investment. But the Labs are equally dependent on quick, reliable transportation. “They have to truck and fly their mice around the world on a moment’s notice,” she said. “And they can’t get them there if they can’t get off the island.”
Powerful confirmation of the economic impact of transportation in Maine is being offered this summer through a combined study undertaken by the University of Southern Maine’s Center for Business and Economic Research and MaineDOT that is expected to be released later this year.
Professor Charles Colgan, like Lachance a former state economist, says the new study quantifies the interdependence of the Maine economy and transportation in a more precise way than ever before. The new report, “Changes in the Maine Economy from Strategic Investments in the Transportation System,” takes as its premise a planned infusion of $1.8 billion in new investment over a 23-year period to come up with some startling findings.
While the MaineDOT has yet to release the final report, Colgan says that they have found – not surprisingly – a notable connection between a steady, closely regulated, longterm transportation investment program and job creation in the construction sector. Colgan said the study combines three different sophisticated computer modeling systems to yield the overall return on investment from such transportation spending. The result is a “very favorable return on investment,” according to Colgan. Strictly speaking, “that’s not a cost-benefit analysis, weighing pros and cons,” Colgan said. But by focusing on the overall economic gain, it shows what could be accomplished over the next two decades. He said it was a particularly attractive when seen in terms of alternative investments. For policymakers trying to decide where to put public dollars, Colgan said the transportation sector offers the advantage of being “very predictable” in forecasting results. R&D investment, by its nature, is more hit or miss, and there’s “a long tail” between the initial investment and the eventual return. “Obviously, you need to do both,” Colgan said, but neglecting the up-front spending on transportation “doesn’t make any sense at all.” He agrees that the state has shown a pattern of up-and-down spending on transportation in recent budgets, and this makes it hard to sustain the gains from earlier investments.
Concerning MaineDOT’s strategic plan for $1.8 billion in new spending, he said, “You have to have a tightly disciplined plan. There’s a little room for moving up and down in a particular year, but not much.” And he emphasized that the new money must truly be on top of existing commitments. “If you don’t maintain what you have, new spending isn’t going to help,” he said.
Future revenue streams
Similar themes emerge from a conversation with Joseph Giglio, Ph.D., a Northeastern University professor and prolific author. Giglio, not one to mince words, said there is a $15-19 billion transportation infrastructure deficit in New England over the next 20 years. Having served on both regional and national transportation posts in several administrations, he said that the same concerns heard in Maine are shared throughout New England and the nation. No region is exempt from the challenges of limited funding and much more substantial needs.
Maine, with its vast geography, large transportation system and small population to pay for it, feels the pinch even more. While Giglio says that transportation groups talking to each other about investment is “like preaching to the choir,” there is evidence that the conversation is reaching a larger segment of the public. Scarce resources might suggest that greater cooperation among various states is worthwhile, but for the most part New England hasn’t exploited such opportunities, he said.
Yet there are exceptions. The I-95 Corridor Coalition is one example of interstate coordination. Some 22 separate agencies along the major East Coast highway from Florida to Maine have participated in regional initiatives. One result is the E-ZPass electronic toll system that has eased travel along toll roads, including the Maine Turnpike. While Maine does not yet have the highway-speed toll collection systems used in states like Florida and New Jersey, it’s coming everywhere, Giglio said.
And beyond the electronic systems used for tolling, there are much greater possibilities in the GPS systems now being installed in most new cars. The deficit between available funding and future transportation needs, in Giglio’s view, is a systemic one not necessarily dependent on individual political decisions in the states or Congress.
Under-investment is common in part because of the perception that “roads are free.” While the public understands that this isn’t really the case, individual decisions reflect the fact that most of the highway system is toll-free for users. “Faced with the tough decision to spend money now to improve something many years into the future, it’s easy to put it off,” he said.
Seen in this way, highways are one of the few public utilities that aren’t paid for directly by the user. Electricity, natural gas, water and sewer fees are all financed through regular billings, and while customers may grumble, they pay what’s needed to maintain the system, he said.
“Until now, we didn’t have the capacity to do this for roads,” he said. But the GPS technology makes it possible to charge for each mile driven, even down to separate lanes on a city street. While Giglio doubts we will ever take it to that level, he sees such financing as the ultimate answer for shortfalls in the existing system.
“The fuel tax, registration fees and federal funds worked fine for a long time,” he said. But he doesn’t see this traditional system lasting far into the future. Adequate revenues can be provided, though, he said, by assessing fees at the point roads are used, and not indirectly at the gas pump.
Prospects for change
In a less futuristic way, Laurie Lachance shares Giglio’s optimism about the transportation future. “I think people do get it,” she said. “I don’t think there’s really any lack of understanding.” While government may be relatively slow to respond to public demands, she doesn’t doubt that it will, ultimately. “We can’t afford to neglect transportation. No state can, and see much of a future for itself,” she said.
Lauren Corey also takes the long view. Her family connection to transportation goes back to her grandfather, Philip Corey, who was president of MBTA in 1953-54, back when it was known as the Maine Good Roads Association. “I was close to my grandfather. I like to keep the flag waving for him, and I’d like to pass that tradition along to my son, Owen,” she said. To truly meet the economic challenges, the state needs to invest not only in roads, but in freight and passenger rail, ports and intermodal connections that pay off at even higher rates. She cites Sears Island and a future container port there as one of the opportunities Maine can’t afford to miss, if it is to become better connected to national and international centers of prosperity.
“The St. Lawrence Seaway is gearing up to meet that demand, but we’ve been somewhat ambivalent about our own ports,” she said. Corey said there still may be a “disconnect” between the public that overwhelmingly supports transportation bond issues and the legislators who must vote on a broader range of investments. “Some legislators get it, and some need to have the issues raised again for them,” she said.
Echoing Charles Colgan’s points about the 20-year plan, she said, “What Maine needs is a steady stream of investment, sustained over time. It may seem like a lot of money, but what’s the alternative?”
Douglas Rooks is a freelance writer and editor who frequently contributes to Maine Trails
One for all
Bangor Area Comprehensive Transportation System searches for synergies as it seeks solutions to the area’s transportation challenges.
By Kathryn Buxton
Proof there’s strength in numbers can be found at the offices of the Bangor Area Comprehensive Transportation System (BACTS), the organization that oversees the region’s locally administered transportation system, including planning for its highways, its bicycle and pedestrian facilities and the BAT fixed route transit system.
BACTS works on the behalf of its 11 municipal members, keeping the region’s diverse communities solidly focused on solutions to meet its transportation challenges. That one-for-all and all-for-one philosophy has been a necessity in recent years, as the region has struggled to do more with less funding. “Every member is going to have their own priorities, but we’ve been able to work as a cohesive group and make some very tough decisions,” said Bangor City Engineer Jim Ring, one of the longest serving members of the BACTS Policy Committee. His involvement with BACTS goes back to the 1970s when he first started working for the city.
The BACTS offices are located in a renovated ballroom on the third floor of the old Sears Department store in downtown Bangor. The large, open plan office space provides a handsome combination of grand moldings, high ceilings and sleek modern finishes. Leading a tour of the space, BACTS Director Rob Kenerson points out the synergies represented within that room and throughout the building. BACTS and its parent organization EMDC share the space with several other organizations including the Penobscot Valley Council of Governments and the Small Business Development Corporation (two other divisions of EMDC). Several other non-profit organizations occupy the renovated space, and BACTS frequently finds opportunities to collaborate with its neighbors on planning and transportation-related projects.
That brand of efficiency, cooperation and creativity – and the ability to find opportunity in every situation – has become a hallmark of the metropolitan planning organization (MPO) for more than a decade. In 1995, Kenerson took over the helm of an MPO that includes 11 communities flanking the Penobscot River in eastern Maine. There are three municipalities completely within the BACTS region: Bangor, Brewer and Veazie. Six other towns – Hampden, Orono, Old Town, Milford, Bradley, Eddington and Orrington – lie partly within its boundaries. The Penobscot Indian Nation is the 11th member; representatives from MaineDOT, the Federal Transit Administration, the Federal Highway Administration, the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce and EMDC fill out the membership. BACTS is one of four MPOs in Maine. The others are: the Androscoggin Transportation Resource Center (ARTC); the Kittery Area Comprehensive Transportation Study (KACTS) and the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation Committee (PACTS). While members do the lion’s share of policy work and decision-making, BACTS personnel oversee the day-to-day operations, including administering consultant contracts, performing traffic counts, modeling traffic and developing public involvement plans and public awareness campaigns.
Kenerson has a seasoned staff to aid him. Don Cooper joined BACTS in 1996 as a senior transportation and transit planner. Dianne Currie, transportation technician, joined the organization in 1999. Another EMDC staffer, John Noll, frequently works with BACTS, and Jayda Maher helps part-time with administration. Earlier this year, the MPO put out an ambitious 2008-2009 Unified Work Plan. In that plan, BACTS expects to spend approximately $789,000 on a broad range of projects. They will complete a new truck route study, undertake bike and pedestrian plan studies, participate in a Penobscot River corridor trail study, update the BACTS transit plan and take a fresh look at the organization’s 20-year plan, among other activities.
‘Cut’ not ‘deferred’
To hear Kenerson talk of it, the region’s transportation challenges aren’t much different from those of Maine’s other three MPOs. There are the everyday concerns about traffic congestion and the need to improve safety. Members are also concerned about how the region can keep local roads maintained despite declining federal and state funding. Still, there are differences. While his counterparts at PACTS and KACTS filter many of their activities through the lens of land use planning, BACTS often focuses on the connection between transportation and economic development.
“Communities here are still looking for new jobs,” said Kenerson. Making those connections hasn’t been easy. In recent years, with budget shortfalls at the state and federal levels, many of the region’s priority projects have been knocked off MaineDOT’s work plan. Kenerson, who chooses his words carefully, is not optimistic. That is why he refers to MaineDOT’s backlogged projects in the region as “cut,” not “deferred.” As the funding crisis has become more serious, the BACTS policy committee has really had to look at “what we can do with the resources we have,” said Kenerson. He talked about the hard decisions about which projects to “cut” and which ones to scale back – maybe paving fewer miles or “the granite curbing comes out.” Sometimes municipalities have had to dig in and find dollars to make up the difference.
In all instances, it has required flexibility, creativity and a healthy dose of realism. Realizing that funding will continue to be an issue, Kenerson said BACTS is beginning to look outside the traditional funding mechanisms. During the recent legislative session, BACTS joined the coalition that supported L.D. 1790, legislation that could change how the state funds future investments in its transportation infrastructure. BACTS also has allocated planning resources in 2008- 2009 to study regional impact fees on new development. While the study is just a first step, it could set the stage for future funding that can go to much needed road repairs and improvements. Catherine Conlow, a BACTS Policy Committee member and Orono town manager, is adamant about the need for alternative funding sources. “I don’t know if [impact fees] are feasible or even legal under state law,” she said, adding that it will help identify BACTS’ options. “We’ve got to take care of what we’ve got,” said Conlow.
When BACTS members look ahead, several programs and issues loom large on the horizon, including the future of the local bus system. The BAT has seen ridership increase by 10 percent or more annually over the past several years, largely due to a partnership between the BAT and the University of Maine. The program allows UMaine students, faculty and staff to ride free in exchange for a fee the university pays to the BAT, and its success has strained the system. Several routes are showing wear and tear, with crowded buses that sometimes cannot stay on schedule. “In a sense, we are a victim of our own success,” said BACTS’ transit planner Don Cooper.
The organization is coordinating a transit study to look at routes and lead times to find a solution to the problem. Orono’s Conlow hopes to see changes in the service that make it easier for local residents to ride the BAT. “We’d love to see more of our residents riding the bus, because those roads get very congested when school’s in session,” said Conlow. BACTS members also are concerned about safety and pavement conditions of the interstate and capacity at some of its interchanges. One of those, Exit 184 that empties onto busy Union Street was built as a “scissor” design with exiting traffic forced to cross over a lane of entering traffic. “The interchange was never meant for the amount of traffic it handles today,” said Kenerson who added that because of the obsolete design, the location has one of the highest accident rates in the state.
The truck weight limit on the interstate is another hot button issue. Members are very interested in getting a waiver from Congress that would raise the limit to 100,000 pounds. Because of its location, the region serves as a crossroads for the entire state, connecting heavy industries in the north with markets to the south. With federal interstate truck limits currently at 80,000 pounds, area towns and cities log a high incidence of the heaviest commercial truck traffic on local roads.
Bangor’s Jim Ring sees a waiver as the obvious solution, both safer and more efficient. He sees little sense in having the big trucks “pound the daylights out of our secondary roads – it just isn’t common sense” when the interstate was built to standards that easily and more efficiently could handle the heavier traffic. According to Ring, truck weight limits and the lack of funding are two sides of the same issue: how can BACTS continue to keep local roads safe and efficient? “I am truly worried about what we are going to look like in five, 10 or 20 years. We just aren’t going to be able to keep up with the roads and keep them safe. I’m sorry to be so grim.”
Whatever tough times and difficult decisions lay ahead, the region is bound to benefit from the collective expertise and energies of BACTS: 11 diverse communities working toward the common goal of maintaining a safe and efficient transportation system for the region’s citizens.