A turning point
While 2008 was a very good year for making transportation a legislative priority, the hope is, it was just a beginning
By Douglas Rooks
As the legislature swept toward adjournment in mid-April, transportation advocates scored three significant successes, seeing enactment of bills to commit $160 million to bridge projects, $50 million to highway reconstruction, and $31 million as a revenue stream for a loan that will enable Maine to extend passenger rail service north of Portland.
All three bills were voted on and sent to Governor Baldacci for his signature during the session’s final week. And while no one was predicting that the package met all of the state’s pressing needs, it represented the best week for transportation programs Maine has had in several years.
Yet the swiftness with which the bills moved disguised a lot of careful preparation going back to the beginning of the session in January 2007. That’s when discussions began that led to a robust transportation bond package, according to House Speaker Glenn Cummings. Transportation needs made up more than half of a record $295 million, two-year bond agreement, of which the final portion was approved on June 10.
“There was a whole different atmosphere around transportation funding in this legislature,” Cummings said. “People were a lot more aware of the needs, and they were willing to act in a way we haven’t seen before.”
Cummings said that, early on, legislative leaders in both parties were willing to place a priority on transportation infrastructure, even before the collapse of an interstate highway bridge in Minneapolis focused national attention on the subject.
Senator Dennis Damon (D-Hancock County), who’s serving his third term on the joint Transportation Committee, and his second term as co-chair, remembers getting a call from Senate President Beth Edmonds (D-Cumberland County) last summer, and not knowing just what to expect. “She wanted to thank me for my advocacy of transportation projects, and said she expected to make it a [Democratic] caucus priority in 2008,” he said. “That hasn’t always been the case in the past.”
Edmonds was cited by legislators of both parties as being influential in getting the rail bill moving after several years of hesitation over whether Maine could afford to extend passenger service beyond the Portland-to-Boston Downeaster run it’s been offering since December 2001.
Edmonds initiated a “rail caucus” meeting in her office that discussed ways to win broader support beyond the Transportation Committee. She said that Republican senators like Karl Turner and Peter Mills were enthusiastic members, and helped win over colleagues, which was important when it came time to determine funding. Lawmakers agreed to sequester half the current sales tax income from car rentals to a separate rails fund, which will provide just over $3 million in annual revenue to support a federal loan for rail improvements at least as far as Brunswick.
The public hearing for LD 2019 was held on March 23, and testimony in favor of the measure came from a broad-based group of transportation and environmental advocates including: TrainRiders Northeast; Maine Better Transportation Association; the League of Young Voters; Maine Eastern Railroad; and the Sierra Club. Several individuals also spoke in support, and both NNEPRA and MaineDOT testified neither for nor against, providing information to the committee.
Train service will likely continue to be a hot topic, even after the passage of 2019. Edmonds said while there is “some money” available to continue operating subsidies for the Downeaster, she acknowledged that the state could be looking for more next year if Senator Olympia Snowe is unable to convince Congress to fund another extension of Amtrak subsidies. “The important point is that we’ve agreed that train service is vital, and must be maintained,” she said. “We’ve already made that decision going forward.”
Representative Boyd Marley (D-Portland) said he saw enthusiasm for the rail bill that hadn’t been there in the past. “Other legislators saw what it’s done for downtown redevelopment in communities like Saco, and decided they wanted it for their town as well.” Brunswick is currently reviewing an ambitious downtown project that includes a new train station, and Freeport is preparing for a stop on Bow Street that’s literally a long stone’s throw from L.L. Bean.
Damon said he was pleased that lawmakers were able to muster support for other transportation modes, despite the dire need for highway and bridge funding. “I always say that this should be the transportation committee, and not just the bridge and highway committee,” he observed. “We need to be working on all modes – ports, rail, freight, airports, and trails and pedestrian facilities, as well.”
A different view is offered by Rep. William Browne (R-Vassalboro), the ranking minority member on the Transportation Committee, who said, “I’m a little concerned that the committee has drifted away from our mission to shore up roads and bridges.” The decline of fuel taxes as a revenue source, and diversion of revenue to other needs, has made it difficult to maintain and improve the existing road network, he said. “We need to get more dedicated revenue for improvements.” Browne favors putting more money into roads even in preference to such long-standing state programs as passenger ferries.
And while he supported the revenue bonds voted for the bridge improvements in LD 2313: “An Act to Keep Bridges Safe,” as well as the two highway fund bonds approved by voters in 2007 and 2008, he said further bonding is probably not the answer. “We’ve reached the point where we don’t want to get the borrowing ratio any higher.”
Representative Richard Cebra (R-Naples), another member of the Transportation Committee, painted a more optimistic picture of the session’s progress. The legislature, he said, “finally realized how big the needs were,” and “saw the light just at the end of the session.”
Up to that time, he said, many lawmakers “believed these problems would go away and solve themselves,” but finally concluded that they wouldn’t. The $160 million bridge bond, in particular, should buy some time, Cebra said. “It bought us four years to get our act together,” and he’s confident that transportation needs will be put on a better footing by then. “It’s a slow process, but we ought to able to do it,” he said.
Not that all this was a sure thing. Marley admits to some nervousness as the session neared its end and there were still no bills on the floor that dealt with transportation. “The governor told us that he would offer a plan when the budget and some other bills were finished up, and in the end, he did.”
The $160 million revenue bond for bridges will support projects over the next four years, hopefully helping the state to reverse a trend that saw more bridges being added to the “deficient” list every year than were being reconstructed.
Sen. Damon said that the perceived need grew during the session. “MaineDOT’s study showed that there were at least 280 bridges due for replacement. By the time the Governor’s task force got through, there were 380,” he said.
Funding for the bridge bill, LD 2313, which had also been discussed long in advance, came from $10 increases in annual registration fees, driver’s license and vehicle titles – all of which were previously below New England averages. New revenue – of any type – was hotly contested during the session, but the “bridge fees” passed muster.
Rep. Marley said that the Transportation Committee was “nearly united” in support of the fees, with 12 of the 13 committee members signing on. Rep. Rich Cebra (R-Naples), a newcomer, and veteran Sen. Christine Savage (R-Knox County) were particularly effective, he said.
Marley also credited business groups, including considerable time and effort given by the MBTA, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and AGCMaine, with actively working throughout the session to help frame the issues and keep the discussion of transportation in the forefront.
Marley and Damon also credit landmark transportation legislation from the previous session – LD 1790 – for laying the groundwork for this session’s successes. “LD 1790, which passed last year, established the TransCap Fund – and that really set the stage for the highway and bridge bills that passed this year,” said Damon. He credits the MBTA and its members – who worked hard to help draft the bill and ensure its passage – with raising the legislature’s awareness of the dire state of Maine’s transportation infrastructure and keeping transportation front of mind this session.
Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said businesses were willing to support more revenue for transportation, because transportation “is such a basic function of government.” He said, “There just isn’t any question that a well-functioning transportation network is necessary to making the economy work.”
The highway reconstruction bill, LD 2324, by contrast, is funded through a reallocation of responsibilities for State Police budgets away from the Highway Fund and toward the General Fund. The original focus on highway patrols made State Police dependent on the Highway Fund – the proportion has gone as high as 82 percent in recent decades, but current responsibilities suggest a much smaller proportion is related to patrol functions. Yet the Highway Fund still bore 60 percent of the cost; the new bill sets the division at 49 percent for the High--way Fund. Assistant Senate Majority Leader John Martin is largely credited with brokering the agreement to use the General Fund for a majority of State Police expenses – a point recommended by several study committees in recent years.
Aiming for continuity
Damon said he believes the perception that roads are deteriorating statewide played a part in convincing lawmakers to finally act on the State Police issue. “Every legislator hears complaints about the pothole down the road from a constituent’s house, but this year they heard a lot more,” he said.
Looking ahead, Marley, who’s among numerous house members forced out by term limits this year, is “pleased by what we’ve been able to accomplish, but concerned that I can’t be there to see it all come to pass.”
Damon, who’s eligible to serve one more term, said he worries about state government’s ability to make decisions, like this year’s on transportation, and stick to them. “We had to have a big transportation bond package because we’d missed out on a couple of previous cycles,” he said. With the legislature term limited, and the governor, too, “it’s a lot harder to maintain continuity, to stay committed to the progress that we’ve been able to make.”
It may be, he added, that where transportation funding is concerned, advocates will always have their work cut out for them.