Maine Trails, April - May '08
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Transportation at center stage

Three bills totalling more than $250 million in new funding make their way through Maine’s State House

By Kathryn Buxton

The second session of the 123rd Maine Legislature took a long time to take up the issue of transportation funding. In fact, it seemed like legislators would never get past the agonizing wrangling over the General Fund budget. Still they did, and in the final two weeks of the session, they took swift action to pass three bills funding rail, highway and bridge improvements.

“We owe a debt of gratitude to the governor, members of the Transportation Committee and legislative leadership,” said MBTA Executive Director Maria Fuentes. “The legislature clearly showed that investment in transportation was a priority and a cornerstone of their legislative agenda.”

The first of those bills to pass was LD 2313: “An Act to Keep Our Bridge Safe.” The bill was introduced by Governor John Baldacci on April 8; it was sponsored by Representative Boyd Marley (D-Portland) and co-sponsored by 29 legislators – an exceptionally broad show of support from both sides of the aisle.

“The Transportation Committee worked long and hard – and in a bipartisan fashion – to address the state’s transportation needs,” said Fuentes. She gave credit for the remarkable sea change to joint chairs Damon and Marley, who worked tirelessly to build consensus in committee, and to committee members who worked with their respective caucuses.

The bill, that provides $160 million for bridge repair and replacement over the next four years, was taken up by the Transportation Committee a day later in a public hearing attended by MBTA members, several of whom offered powerful testimony in support. The most impassioned testimony of the day came from committee member Representative Richard Cebra (R-Naples).

Preventing a ‘heinous tragedy’

Cebra outlined all that the Transportation Committee has attempted in recent years to raise awareness among fellow legislators of the potentially “heinous calamity” that would occur if the state did not step up funding for its transportation infrastructure. He listed a half dozen committee proposals that failed, hindered by a general lack of support from legislators outside of the committee.

“There is a pervasive attitude among our non-transportation committee colleagues in both houses that either transportation is not a priority . . . or that somehow our transportation infrastructure will magically fix itself,” Cebra intoned, adding “I am thrilled that may be changing. This bill is encouraging, to say the least.” (See sidebar for excerpts from his speech).

The committee passed the measure almost unanimously after adding $8 million for paving; Representative Douglas Thomas (R-Ripley) was the lone dissenter. The legislature took up the bill early the following week, with the bill passing handily in both houses on April 15. The governor signed the bill on April 17.

Highways and rail, too

Highways and rail also earned significant funding gains during the session’s final days. On the same day that the governor signed LD 2313, a second bill, LD 2324: “An Act to Expedite the Maintenance and Repair of Maine’s Transportation Network,” was introduced by Transportation Committee Chair Senator Dennis Damon (Hancock). The bill, providing an additional $50 million for highway reconstruction, had been conceived by Senator John Martin (D-Aroostook) and supported by leaders in the Senate and House Democratic caucuses. It was co-sponsored by 17 legislators including Senate President Beth Edmonds (D-Cumberland County), Senate Majority Leader Libby Mitchell (D-Kennebec) and several Republicans. It passed both houses the next day and was signed by the governor within the week.

Like LD 2313, this measure funds the TransCap Fund established by LD 1790, a bill that the MBTA created, and its members, the AGC and many others worked hard to pass last year. Both bills also represent significant new revenues. MaineDOT officials, eager to put the new funding to work, said that they hoped to get several highway reconstruction projects back in the pipeline this summer – projects sidetracked by more than $200 million in cutbacks over the past two years.

A third bill, funding expansion and improvements for passenger rail, took longer to make its way through the session. The bill, sponsored by Transportation Co-Chair Marley, was first introduced in December 2007. The bill was amended in the Transportation Committee and garnered support in both houses when it was expanded to include improvements to Maine’s freight rail network.

“Representative Marley has been the leading rail champion in the House, and this will be an important part of his legacy,” said MBTA’s Fuentes who added that he would not be returning next session because of term limits. She noted that it was Senator Edmonds who “carried the water” for the bill in the Senate. “They both were extremely eloquent and persuasive spokespersons for the future of rail in Maine.”

The bill that passed in the House on April 14 and the Senate on April 18, initially will provide $2.5 million to rebuild tracks from Portland to Yarmouth Junction and Brunswick. That segment of rail will create a vital passenger link, as well as a valuable freight link connecting Maine’s southern ports with markets in Canada and the midwest. Funding from the bill also can benefit other non-highway modes. 

At a glance: Three new laws funding transportation in Maine

LD 2313: “An Act to Keep Our Bridges Safe”

  • Provides $160 million funding for bridge reconstruction and repair over four years and $8 millon for paving this year.
  • Bonds to be issued by the Maine Municipal Bond Bank and known as “TransCap” Revenue Bonds (as provided for in LD 1790: “An Act to Secure Maine’s Transportation Future”).
  • Bonds will be repaid with new revenue generated from a $10 increase in non-commercial auto registration, title, and vanity plate fees.
  • Introduced April 8, 2008; signed by governor April 17, 2008.

LD 2324: “An Act to Expedite the Maintenance and Repair of Maine’s Transportation Network”

  • Provides $50 million for highway reconstruction.
  • Bonds to be issued by the Maine Municipal Bond Bank and known as “TransCap” Revenue Bonds (as provided for in LD 1790: “An Act to Secure Maine’s Transportation Future”).
  • Revenues to come from a change in the percentage the Highway Fund pays for the Maine State Police (49 percent down from 60 percent) that will free up $5.3 million annually.
  • ntroduced April 17, 2008; signed by governor April 23, 2008.

LD 2019: Rail funding initiative

  • $3.05 million annually to fund improvements to passenger and freight rail systems beyond Portland and other transit and non-highway projects. $2.5 million to be used for revenue stream for $31 million loan to extend rail beyond Portland. Remainder goes to MaineDOT’s State Transit, Aviation and Rail Account (“STAR” Account).
  • Revenues come from existing sources; the bill redirects half of the tax collected on auto rentals to STAR Account.
  • Introduced December 21, 2007; signed by governor April 23, 2008.
 A fierce advocate speaks out

On April 17, during a public hearing on LD 2313, Representative Richard Cebra (R-Naples) gave a powerfully eloquent speech [excerpted below] on behalf of the bridge bill.

Fellow committee members, how did we get to this critical place? How is it we find ourselves in such a horrendous crisis when it comes to our important bridge infrastructure throughout the state?

First, I would like to say how thrilled I am that our governor has put forward this piece of legislation for our consideration at your requesting. I welcome him into this fight for our future bridge safety, and I am equally thrilled to read through the absolutely non-partisan list of 29 co-sponsors, who have decided to stand with us in the funding gap for the good people of this state.

…I want to outline the efforts that were made in this [committee] to strengthen the financial position of the Highway Fund…First, we attempted to set aside a portion of the sales tax on vehicles and transportation related items (4 percent the first year; 8 percent the second year; 12 percent the third year; 16 percent the fourth year; and 20 percent thereafter). This schedule was offered since it was consistent with the growth in the sales tax within this category, and would have meant that there would not be a loss to the general fund below prior year revenues…

We also attempted to set aside a portion of the motor vehicle excise tax (4 percent first year; 8 percent second year; 12 percent third year; 16 percent fourth year and 20 percent thereafter). This schedule was offered since it was consistent with the growth in the excise tax 
and would mean there would not be a loss to municipal general funds below prior year revenues…

We attempted to change the cost-sharing formula for the State Police to conform to the findings of the OPEGA report. The formula today remains at 60 percent Highway Fund and 40 percent General Fund even though the Appropriations Committee continues to control the head count for the State Police… We attempted to pass a motor vehicle fee increase not unlike those now being proposed…We discussed and attempted a proposed restructuring of the State-Aid Highway and URIP programs…

We looked at a study of the feasibility of tolling I-295 for the purpose of funding the modernization of that highway. . .We attempted a proposed conversion of a portion of the motor fuels excise tax to a sales tax…[All of these measures] failed to receive sufficient support for passage.

…there is a pervasive attitude among our non-transportation committee colleagues in both houses that either transportation is not a priority or that somehow our transportation infrastructure will magically fix itself.

…It is time for this committee to stand once again for the people of Maine, for our businesses and for our future and give this bill a strong vote of support out of committee.

This bill is reasonable, it is important for our economic future, it will add greatly needed dollars to a thinly stretched bridge program, the fee increases are minor and keep the fees within New England averages, and it will go a long way towards our goal of keeping our bridges safe – not just for today but for tomorrow. It is the right bill at the right time.

I ask my fellow Transportation Committee members to unanimously support LD 2313.
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