As economic stimulus package takes shape, MaineDOT is positioned to move quickly
By David Cole, MaineDOT Commissioner
Enactment of a substantial economic stimulus package in the first days of a new federal administration seems more certain with each passing day. President-elect Barack Obama and the incoming U.S. Congress appear poised to make infrastructure investment the centerpiece of a massive appropriation that would pump billions into the ailing U.S. economy in an effort to jump-start economic activity and reverse the trend of rising unemployment. We at MaineDOT are gearing up aggressively to make the best possible use of the transportation funding in an anticipated stimulus bill. While we don’t yet know the ultimate form and size the funding package will take, MaineDOT will be ready to access every available federal dollar, and to put the money to work for the Maine economy for both the short and long terms.
In early December, state DOTs around the nation responded to an American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) survey that sought to quantify the scale of transportation projects that could be put under contract immediately – “shovel-ready” – within 180 days of enactment of a stimulus bill. MaineDOT responded with a preliminary, draft list of transportation projects that could be delivered to construction in that time frame. Since then, Governor Baldacci directed all state agencies to further develop contingencies for whatever form the legislation eventually takes. We at MaineDOT are engaged in an ongoing, intensive process to augment and refine Maine’s pool of candidate transportation projects, though we will not be able to finalize and prioritize the list until a bill emerges. There’s still much we don’t know: How much money will there be for transportation? What allocations will there be for various transportation modes (e.g., highways, bridges, buses, aviation, rail)? Within modes, what proportions will be required (e.g., among highway projects, what will be the allowable percentages for paving and for reconstruction)? Will non-federal matching funds be needed? How will the money be distributed to states? By formula? These and other questions have yet to be answered.
What we do know is that the essential criteria will be the projects’ deliverability and importance to our economy. Not all transportation needs in Maine will be appropriate for the stimulus effort, but the major infusion of stimulus funding will work in conjunction with our Biennial Capital Work Plan, and development of the plan already includes hundreds of projects. Presumably, stimulus funding would allow us to accelerate some projects likely to be included in the Work Plan, as well as to add projects that are not already programmed. Some projects listed in the Work Plan will just not be ready to go to bid within 180 days, but they will still go out during the biennium.
We can say with a high degree of confidence that rehabilitation of the northbound lanes of I-295 between Topsham and Gardiner is a project that we would propose for stimulus funding. This project, along with other interstate improvements, could be put out to bid immediately, meeting a key objective of a stimulus plan. Interstate work is desperately needed – to ensure safety and drivability on this “backbone of Maine’s transportation system” and, arguably, of Maine’s economy. In addition to road and bridge projects, we will be proposing a diverse array of projects across the spectrum of transportation modes. But Maine’s transportation needs are enormous, and a stimulus bill cannot be relied upon to address all of these needs.
Policymakers’ interest in infrastructure is high, beyond anything the transportation sector has seen in recent decades. Key tasks before us thus include educating the public and building stakeholder cooperation at every level. Municipalities, contractors, designers, suppliers, labor interests, our federal partners and MaineDOT must all work together to build our common economic future.
Municipal officials should provide input as to their communities’ transportation needs. They must also help educate citizens that projects that can’t be contracted within 180 days will need to be programmed through the regular two-year work plan process. The name of the game will be “use it quickly, or lose it,” so projects selected also will be those that don’t require lengthy environmental permitting and review. City and town managers can help lay the groundwork by communicating these realities to transportation advocates and neighborhood groups.
Transportation’s business community – engineering consultants, construction contractors and suppliers – must be ready to combine forces on fast-track contracting methods like “design-build” and other innovations that can help “move the ball” quickly. A large stimulus bill will present unfamiliar challenges, including competition for materials, equipment, subcontractors, and labor. Together, we need to be dead on-target regarding Maine’s construction capacity. The Maine Better Transportation Association (MBTA) recently conducted a survey to help all of us better understand Maine’s capacity to initiate, conduct and complete transportation projects.
The old saying that “In crisis, there is opportunity,” has perhaps never been more apt for transportation in Maine. It’s time for all of us that work in the business of transportation to lock arms, put our heads together, and begin rebuilding Maine’s economy, one transportation project at a time.