Strength in numbers
Portland area MPO develops new approaches to weigh growing needs against shrinking federal dollars
by Kathryn Buxton
Fourteen million dollars doesn’t buy what it used to. Just ask any member of PACTS, the metropolitan planning organization (MPO) responsible for setting transportation priorities for the Portland area. It is a reality the 15 PACTS communities have had to come to terms with as they have worked together to make funding decisions for the upcoming biennium.
“That’s not nearly enough money to do anything we need to do, and that can be very frustrating,” said Bill Shane, Cumberland town manager and chair of the PACTS Policy Committee. Shane and his fellow committee members are fresh from the process of planning for the coming biennium, discussing where and what to spend on the region’s 204 miles of collectors, 117 miles of arterials and 80 miles of interstate highways, roads that are eligible for state and federal funding.
Now, with so much to accomplish and such limited funding, PACTS is increasingly looking at new funding strategies to support the region’s transportation network. PACTS Director John Duncan agrees that how to spend the $14 million – and how to secure more funding – has become an ever-greater preoccupation of the organization, absorbing more of PACTS’ resources and, in many ways, eclipsing the traditional programming role that PACTS has had since it was founded in the mid-1970s.
“Since SAFETEA LU, it’s been all about the money,” said Duncan. These days he, his staff of two and the more than 60 plus individuals participating in the PACTS planning process spend a good deal of their time discussing how to identify and secure a bigger share of the dwindling pot of public dollars spent in Maine on highways, bridges and transit.
The quest has led the organization and its members down several new paths: a highly publicized community discussion of regional transportation priorities; a groundbreaking effort to catalogue the condition of the region’s collector roads; and an in-depth study on how to exploit untapped funding opportunities available to the MPO and its members. Now, the group is adding a new task to the list – the launch of its periodic long-range planning process titled “Destination Tomorrow.”
The shift to broaden the PACTS communities’ efforts to attract more funding comes at a critical time in the world of transportation planning. The federal reauthorization process will shift into high gear in the new year and an historic downturn in consumer driving this year has put downward budget pressures on already meager federal Highway Trust Fund revenues.
Rick Michaud, the Saco city administrator, has led the most visible effort to lasso more funding for PACTS, the High Priority Projects Committee. The committee joins PACTS’ longstanding policy, planning, technical and transit committees and grew out of the efforts of Michaud, who two years ago took a long, critical look at what was ahead for PACTS and saw some unexploited opportunities.
Michaud remembers having an epiphany at that time. He saw all of the organization’s resources – both staff and members – focused almost entirely on programming the approximately $10 million in federal matching funds regularly doled out to the region every two years. At the same time, he saw a bigger pot of money that MaineDOT had for high priority projects – big ticket transportation earmarks – that typically brings in $30 million to $50 million during a reauthorization period. And then he talked to Duncan.
“Rick said, ‘You know, we ought to get into the high priority projects business.’ The thought was that we might strike it rich,’” recalled Duncan.
Michaud expanded on that thought. He said it isn’t so much about striking it rich, but “more about having a greater portion of Maine’s funding being allocated to the PACTS region” where a greater portion of Maine’s population is centered. He said that with a unified effort, PACTS communities would increase the probability of funding.
The work to identify the right combination of high priority projects to attract earmarked funds began in earnest in 2006. PACTS, being a committee of committees, formed a new committee — the High Priority Projects Committee – to identify a short list of projects that might qualify for funding. The group developed a list of nine projects. Through a series of community meetings, input from PACTS’ partners and a region-wide survey, the nine projects were narrowed to three:
- Rehabilitate the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge, seeking additional funds, if needed, to expedite reconstruction of the bridge. Estimated price tag of $56 million;
- Invest in region’s transit fleet, purchasing 61 vehicles including buses, paratransit vehicles and a passenger ferry. Estimated price tag: $22.5 million;
- Capital investments for “Portland North” commuter service to Brunswick, estimated price tag: $70 million.
On October 16, the PACTS Policy Committee adopted the recommendations of the High Priority Committee, clearing the way for PACTS members to begin actively seeking funds for these projects.
Also on the PACTS agenda this year is “Leveraging Increased Funding Through Transportation Investment Partnerships,” a 35-page report by Maine Tomorrow and Planning Decisions. The report outlines a long list of possible funding sources, currently available to MaineDOT, PACTS communities and other Maine municipalities. These include property and vehicle excise tax revenue growth set asides and federal and state loan programs to ensure municipal capital improvement districts and to pursue municipal-private partnerships.
Still, even as more of the organization’s efforts focus on securing dollars for maintaining and enhancing the region’s transportation, everything is filtered through PACTS, which retains its core role as a planning organization.
“We’re still a technical analysis group,” Duncan underscores, and the group has nearly a dozen studies either underway or recently completed. One of those, the Regional Collector Road Assessment Study by Gorrill-Palmer Consulting Engineers was presented at the Policy Committee meeting in October. The study is the region’s first attempt to catalogue the condition of the region’s collector roads.
Michaud has hopes the study will become a blueprint of sorts for the entire state and a way for cities and towns to measure progress in the upkeep of the collector system of roads. He believes this network of roads is the lifeblood of Maine’s communities and too often is left behind in times when transportation dollars are limited.
“One of my crusades at PACTS is to be constantly asking ourselves, ‘Are we keeping up?,’” said Michaud. “Now we will have the tools to tell that if we only spend so much, will the roads improve or will they get worse?”
Shane agrees that the ability of PACTS members to develop quantitative tools and a clear process to evaluate and prioritize transportation spending makes a difficult job easier.
“It’s our job to take limited funding and stretch it – that’s the biggest challenge a town manager faces,” said Shane. For towns like Cumberland, it can be frustrating to see priorities set in towns like South Portland, Portland, Biddeford and Saco on roads with high traffic volumes, when state highways like Route 88 that runs through Cumberland grow rougher every year and with town residents growing increasingly unsatisfied with their roads.
“We have a 200-mile network and the piece of pie for taking care of that is pretty small,” said Shane. Still he says that “99 out of 100 decisions I can go back to my town and support because they are truly good for the region, and that speaks volumes about the people and the process.”
The difficult work of PACTS’ cities and towns, Duncan warns, is only going to get harder, and that is something the group will have to take into account, as it begins the process for its “Destination Tomorrow” long-range plan. Duncan expects that, as in the case of the last long-range plan, land use policy will play a big role, helping the region’s communities establish sustainable growth policies that will go in hand with transportation planning.
As an example, he cites the high priority project survey recently completed for PACTS by the Pan Atlantic SMS Group and a series of questions about what consumers plan on doing if and when gas prices climb to $5 or $10 per gallon. Two-thirds of the survey participants reported that they already had altered their driving habits because of increasing gas prices. While the survey found that driving alone was still the mode of choice for most area residents (82 percent), as fuel prices approached $5 or $10, nearly 40 percent would change their driving habits by driving less, using public transit or making “work-related changes.”
And that will have major impacts on regional transportation funding – reducing fuel tax revenues and creating more funding demands to build a transit system that will accommodate all of those new riders, according to Duncan.
Michaud concurs, adding that PACTS’ current discussions about high priority funding and the role of transit foreshadow that shift. “That’s the future, and we need to be ready when it happens,” said Michaud.