Taking stock. A look at last year’s successes – and the benefits of MBTA membership.
By Gregory A. Dore
Failing grades. Maine’s roads get a ‘D’ on the Maine Section ASCE Infrastructure Report Card.
By Kathryn Buxton
10 stories that shaped Maine transportation in 2008. Revisiting an eventful year.
By Kathryn Buxton
Winging it. At the Holiday Meeting in Orono.
Time to remember. Morrill Worcester’s holiday tradition has captured America’s heart.
By Douglas Rooks
Concord Coach Lines rolls into Augusta. Harry Blunt is changing
how people look at – and ride – buses.
By Maria Fuentes
Stimulus package takes shape. MaineDOT is positioned to move quickly.
By David Cole
A new ‘report card’ issued by the Maine Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers finds that Maine’s infrastructure ranks below average – and that Maine’s system of roads and bridges are on the brink of failure. Some believe there is no better time to school the public on infrastructure need.
By Kathryn Buxton
In recent years, it has become generally accepted wisdom that Maine’s transportation infrastructure is badly in need of repair. But just how desperate the situation is has been made clearer, thanks to a new “report card” issued by the Maine Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).
In mid-December, the organization rolled out the Report Card for Maine’s Infrastructure, a report that found major areas of concern among the state’s transportation network – chiefly roads and bridges – that are underfunded, pose a high risk of failure and threaten to negatively impact the state’s economy.
“If your kid brought this report card home, you’d send him back to school,” said Maine Senator Elizabeth Mitchell (D-Kennebec County). Mitchell, the legislature’s newly elected senate president, spoke at the briefing in Augusta on December 10 where the report card was unveiled.
The reason for Maine’s failing transportation grades is obvious if you follow the money, said Maine Section ASCE President Erik J. Wiberg, P.E.
“Maine spends one-fifth of the New England average on a per-mile basis on capital improvements and one-third of the regional average on maintenance,” said Wiberg in an interview with Maine Trails. “That is symptomatic of Maine’s reduced priority of funding that goes to transportation” — funding that has fallen from 25 percent of all state funding in 1976 to less than 10 percent in 2008.
“To think that the investment we have made in these critical arterial roads over the past 50 years will be lost due to lack of care is unconscionable,” said John Hodgkins, P.E. (retired). Hodgkins was an ASCE Maine Report Card peer review committee member and is a former MaineDOT director of project development.
Not good enough for the team
Twelve ASCE infrastructure area leaders, a team of civil engineers, and industry experts volunteered hundreds of hours to review public records and evaluate infrastructure in Maine. They analyzed the following fundamental components of each infrastructure area: existing conditions; capacity; operations and maintenance or deferred maintenance; public safety and security; risk and consequences of failure; and current and projected levels of funding.
The report card graded infrastructure in a total of 14 different categories, including six transportation areas. Among all categories, Maine’s roads ranked the worst (D). Bridges, contaminated site remediation, dams and municipal wastewater fared only slightly better with a D+ awarded to each. Maine’s airports were given a B-; railroads received a C; and passenger transportation and waterways and ports each took home a C-.
The organization gave an overall grade of C- to Maine’s infrastructure.
Even with relatively high grades in some areas — and a collective grade that might keep a high school student off the football team — Wiberg warned against complacence. He said the grades present a concern because collectively they show an aging system that is “on the cusp of increasing risk of failure when we need a system that is stable, robust and reliable.”
“The health, safety and welfare of our citizens are directly tied to the quality of our infrastructure,” said Wiberg. “Maine’s economy is built on its infrastructure, and current and forecasted funding is inadequate to meet the needs. If Maine is to grow economically and sustain its quality of life, investment in infrastructure must be a higher priority.”
The 2008 Maine Infrastructure Report Card is intended to be the first of a series that will be issued every three to five years. The Maine Section’s report follows a format established by the national ASCE. The Washington, D.C.-based organization issued its first national survey of infrastructure condition in 1988. (The national report card was last issued in 2005 and is due to be updated in March 2009). Since 1998, several state chapters have released regional report cards. New Hampshire was the first New England state to do so in 2002 and most recently updated it in 2006. Maine was the second.
Casey Dinges, managing director of external affairs for the national ASCE, said state report cards like the one just completed in Maine have helped turn the tide and generate public awareness and funding of the infrastructure crisis in Pennsylvania, California and New York.
“Certainly in Pennsylvania, we have seen progress with Governor Rendell and with Governor Schwarzenegger in California and Mayor Bloomberg in New York,” said Dinges. “A report card like this can create momentum for change.”
Not just a ‘jobs generator’
More than 100 people were at the December 10th unveiling, and the event was featured in almost all of the state’s major television, radio and print media. That shows just what a hot topic infrastructure is right now.
The ASCE’s Dinges said, with the faltering economy and the Obama administration economic stimulus plan, there is a chance Maine and the other 49 states may get some federal funds to begin the long process of turning the situation around.
“We’re encouraged, but it is unfortunate that we have to be in a crisis before the issue takes off,” said Dinges. He said that the danger is in seeing infrastructure just as “a jobs generator,” and not making the commitment to a long-term program to maintain and modernize essential public assets.
At the Maine event, one Maine legislator took that thought further. Mitchell told the audience assembled about the efforts in the legislature to address the issue by allocating more than $400 million to state infrastructure needs.
“We stepped up as best as we could, but we’re looking for the federal government to be our partner in this,” said Mitchell.
Maine’s transportation isn’t making the grade
The Maine Section ASCE’s 2008 Report Card ranked 14 critical infrastructure areas, including six aspects of the state’s transportation network. Among those six, airports ranked highest (B-) and roads ranked lowest (D).
Roads received a D due to conditions. Poor pavement has increased from only 2 percent of all MaineDOT roads in 1996 to over 26 percent in 2006. MaineDOT’s pavement preservation program for modern “built” roads, mostly arterials that carry more than half the state’s traffic, is funded at half of what is needed, resulting in the risk of many of those 2,100 miles falling into poor condition and requiring more costly improvements in the future.
Bridge conditions are expected to improve marginally over the next few years due to legislation passed in 2008 that provided additional funding for MaineDOT bridges. However, there is still more than $440-million gap in funding for MaineDOT bridges over the next 10 years. Currently, 34 percent of Maine’s bridges are listed as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, higher than the national average of 25 percent.
Railroads continue to be under-utilized in Maine and further investment should facilitate higher use. Maine is currently 48th in the nation for freight tonnage moved by rail.
Ports & Railways: C-
Ports & Waterways have received major investments in the past few years, but require further investments in order to meet the projected demands of containerized cargo and the cruise industry.
Passenger transportation: C-
Passenger transportation has had a surge in demand over the past few years (over 113 percent growth from 2004 to 2006) with the increase in fuel costs. Transit, ferry, and passenger rail all require additional funding to meet rising demand. Only 55 percent of transit vehicles are considered in good condition.
Airports have traditionally received 95 percent of their project funding from federal sources and conditions reflect this investment. A funding shortfall is projected of over $100 million for the next 20 years.
About the Maine Section ASCE:
The Maine Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers (Maine Section ASCE) represents more than 700 civil engineering professionals who live and work in Maine. Founded in 1852, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) represents more than 146,000 civil engineers worldwide and is America’s oldest national engineering society.
To view a copy of the complete report card and download the full report that includes the data used to make the assessments, visit www.maineasce.org.
10 stories that shaped Maine transportation in 2008
The past year was an eventful one in transportation, from historic increases in construction material costs to wildly fluctuating fuel costs. Maine Trails looks back at some of the stories that made the news during the past 12 months and that promise to shape the transportation industry for years to come.
by Kathryn Buxton
1. Maine’s bridge ‘watch list’ grows – significantly.
In late 2007, Governor Baldacci’s office released “Keeping Our Bridges Safe,” a report that found that Maine’s bridges were safe, but in decline and in need of an additional $50-60 million in annual funding. To highlight matters, MaineDOT’s official bridge “watch list” grew by 31 percent, from 288 bridges in 2007 to 386 bridges in 2008.
2. Peter Vigue’s big idea gains traction.
The new chairman of the Cianbro Cos. became the most sought-after speaker in Maine, talking about his plan to build a private east-west toll highway from Calais to Coburn Gore. The 220-mile highway with a 2,000-foot right-of-way to be built on an already existing network of private roads and financed by private investors, will include utility transmission lines and will not be subject to federal weight restrictions. Vigue expects the one-way toll will be $125, a price shippers willingly will pay to trim travel time by two to four hours and hundreds of dollars from their fuel costs. The feasibility study was completed in April 2008, and permitting is expected to begin in 2009 with construction underway as early as 2011.
3. Maine’s transportation infrastructure gets a red flag.
For the second year running, the Maine Economic Growth Council “red flagged” transportation in its annual report on the Maine economy. The report found that Maine’s transportation infrastructure – particularly its network of highways and bridges – was the worst in the region. “Having quality transportation is critical for economic growth,” stated the report. “Improvements in all the modes of transportation – roads, rail, air and ports – make Maine more attractive to those interested in doing business here, and network Maine to the wider world.”
4. National commission calls for federal fuel tax increase.
This was an idea that was about 11 months before its time. The National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Commission caused quite a stir when it released its report “Transportation for Tomorrow” early in the year. The report called for an increase to the federal gas tax, which hasn’t changed in over a decade and is a major reason the federal Highway Trust Fund (HTF) is insolvent. Three of the 12-member commission refused to sign the report (including U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Mary Peters), and several members of Congress denounced the commission’s recommendation. But many believe that when Congress takes up the federal transportation authorization this year, the idea will gain broader support. Construction costs continue to increase, projections of the HTF deficit are growing, and already more public figures are calling for an increase – and for a stepped up effort to enact new transportation funding measures.
One reason gas tax watchers believe the increase may be more palatable to lawmakers: adding a few extra cents to the price of gas seems a lot less painful now that gas prices have plummeted from their $4-plus high in mid-2008.
5. Potholes become Public Enemy No. 1.
Potholes plagued Maine drivers and public works crews during first few months of 2008. The culprit was bad roads exacerbated by a snowy, wet winter and a relatively temperate spring with an extended freeze-and-thaw cycle that wreaked havoc on the state’s aging network of highways. MaineDOT spent more than $3.2 million on quick-fix patches, auto repair bills soared and both potholes and posted roads became the rallying cry of TV news reporters and editorial writers across the state.
The Portland Press Herald wrote about the phenomenon on its editorial page: “No doubt, state and local transportation officials are aware of the places where Maine’s aging infrastructure threatens to give way. It’s not that public works crews don’t know of the need; it’s that collectively, we don’t give the resources to fix every road bed or promptly patch each pothole.”
6. The Maine Legislature gets serious about transportation.
During the final days of the 123rd Maine Legislature, three bills totalling nearly $250 million in new transportation funding were passed. The bills included funding for bridge repair ($160 million), highway reconstruction ($50 million) and rail ($31 million). The new funding for highways and bridges was historic. It was the first time bonds were issued through the new TransCap Fund established with the passage of LD 1790. All three bills received broad bipartisan support, and MBTA Executive Director Maria Fuentes said that the legislature “clearly showed that investment in transportation was a priority and a cornerstone of their legislative agenda.”
7. Americans – and especially Mainers – drive less.
With gas over $4 and diesel oil peaking just under $5, transportation leaders worried about the effects on the industry this past summer’s rising prices would have in the years and the months ahead. This fall, even as pump prices fell, Mainers continued to curtail their driving and vehicle miles traveled (VMT) continued to fall. In fact, by the end of the year, monthly VMTs in Maine were down by 7.5 percent, a cause of concern for transportation officials that were witnessing parallel declines in fuel tax and toll revenues for the year. The declines prompted the Maine Turnpike Authority to move a planned toll increase up by a year, and the MaineDOT to begin rounds of cuts that included trimming 99 jobs from the department’s payroll in November.
8. The Patriot Corridor is born.
Early in 2008, Pan Am Railways and Norfolk Southern announced they were embarking on a joint venture to improve the flow of freight rail through the northeast. The Patriot Corridor will include a 155-mile high-speed freight-rail route between Mechanicville , New York and Ayer, Massachusetts, and a $40 million intermodal and automotive rail logistics center in Saratoga County, New York. The corridor also connects to 281 miles of secondary and branch lines in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Maine and Vermont. The partnership promises to benefit Maine. MRG Inc./Downeast Rail President Jack Sutton told Maine Trails earlier this year that the deal would have “indirect, but substantive benefits” to Maine shippers. And Pan American Railways President David Fink said that there is talk of re-opening the intermodal center in Waterville. Construction of the Saratoga center is slated to begin in first-quarter 2009 and conclude in April 2010 pending the completion of the permitting process.
A new word entered the Maine vernacular during the spring of 2008 – “rubblize” – when the MaineDOT announced it planned to shut down an 18-mile section of southbound I-295 between Gardiner and Topsham. The shut down enabled construction crews from Pike Industries to break up the highway’s crumbling concrete roadway and replace it with an asphalt surface in little more than three months. The gutsy move, undertaken during the peak of the summer travel season, saved Mainers considerable headaches down the line. The department estimates the job would have taken up to three years to complete – and cost several million dollars more – if they had allowed restricted traffic on that section of the highway.
10. Maine becomes the center of a new ‘mega region.’
Maine is poised to take center stage of the CanAm “mega region,” says a groundbreaking study that was previewed at a conference of the New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers in Bar Harbor in September. The study was spearheaded by MaineDOT and looked at the region-wide economic benefits associated with various transportation enhancements, including highway, rail and ports. MaineDOT Deputy Commissioner Greg Nadeau said that the study shows how “Maine can be the linchpin” between the resource-rich Maritimes and markets to the south and west, including Boston, Toronto and Chicago. Stay tuned: the final report is due soon and is expected to keep topics like the East-West Highway, port enhancements, rail and truck weights in the news.
Bangor International Airport plans topic of annual MBTA Holiday Meeting
It was the kind of night that plays havoc with travel plans.
Heavy snow and ice blanketed much of the state, canceling flights and putting snowplows out on the road. The conditions did not daunt MBTA members attending the organization’s annual Holiday Meeting at the Black Bear Inn in Orono on December 11. The MBTA was privileged to have one local legislator and one former legislator in attendance. Representative Emily Cain of Orono, attended, only a week before being named House Chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee. Also in attendance was former Representative Charles “Dusty” Fisher, a former House chair of the Transportation Committee and long-time friend of the MBTA.
The meeting program, titled “Flight Plan: Weathering turbulence & finding opportunity in the passenger air travel market,” encountered its own weather-related challenges when one of the presenters – Portland Inter-national Jetport Marketing Manager Gregory Hughes, had to cancel due to the weather. Luckily, Bangor International’s Rebecca Hupp, the other scheduled presenter, was local, and able to make the event.
Hupp spoke about the challenges facing the aviation industry, including tightening competition among commercial air carriers that have them closely scrutinizing their routes and regional service. Hupp gave the assembled MBTA members and friends a brief history of the airport, from its days as a private airfield to its conversion to government service during World War II. She also talked about how the city of Bangor assumed control of the former Air Force Base and revitalized it. The city has brought in commercial and freight carriers and established the airfield as a stopover for U.S. troops on their way to and from service abroad. Today the airport is served by five commercial carriers, including Allegiant Air, Continental Airlines, Delta, Northwest Airlink and U.S. Airways.
Hupp dispelled some long-held myths about the airport. She said that the airport is not responsible for fare levels, and that airport costs have little to do with passenger ticket costs. She also said the myth that Bangor’s operating costs are high is not justified. The average cost per passenger is just $3.06, well below that of other regional airports it size.
Hupp described the airport’s construction plans, including a $3.97 million expansion and renovation of the existing terminal and the $2.5 million upcoming reconstruction of the apron. That will include 23,400 square yards of aircraft parking. She also outlined the many challenges facing the industry in the years ahead, from fluctuating fuel costs, the poor economy and changes in demand for business and leisure travel. She said the regional airport had many strengths that would serve it well in the market: strong local support for the service its carriers offer; favorable exchange rates with Canada; an expanding year-round demand for air travel from the city; and strong performance in key “gateway” markets.
Hupp’s presentation – and the chance to share holiday cheer with their fellow MBTA members – brought 100 members and friends to the meeting at the Black Bear Inn in Orono. MBTA President Greg Dore served as the evening’s emcee.
In his opening remarks, Dore looked back on a successful two-year run for the organization that included helping to secure more than $500 million in funding for roads, bridges, rail and other transportation. He urged members to continue their support for transportation investment in 2009, as the MBTA works to gain support for increased funding both at the state and federal levels with the debate of the upcoming federal reauthorization.
Dore also announced the winners of the MBTA SuperRaffle. Five hundred tickets were sold, raising $17,000 for the Educational Foundation, which awards transportation scholarships to Maine students. Ken Grondin won the grand prize – a $7,000 trip to a location of his choice anywhere in the world. His cousin and past MBTA president Phil Grondin, Jr. sold the winning ticket two years in a row. Last year, Phil’s sister Michelle was the grand prize winner.
Dore also awarded the top prize for the annual Membership Committee contest to Eric Ritchie of The Lane Construction Corporation – a $500 L. L. Bean gift certificate – for recruiting three new corporate members and four individual members for the MBTA. Congratulations Eric and our other winners!
Time to remember
A market downturn in the ’90s led to a downeast business’ holiday tradition that has captured the heart of America.
By Douglas Rooks
It started out innocently enough. Morrill Worcester was a 12-year-old paperboy for the Bangor Daily News, when he won a contest for new subscribers that included a trip to Washington, D.C. While there, he toured Arlington National Cemetery and said later that it made “an indelible impression” on him.
As a student at the University of Maine in Orono, he launched the first business venture that would eventually result in the founding of Worcester Wreath Co., one of Washington County’s largest seasonal employers. He was born in Jonesport, and except for a few years in Connecticut, has lived Downeast all his life.
As he now recalls it, he and a fellow business student, who were running their own roadside vegetable stands, were friendly with Boston suppliers who told them there might be a market for Maine balsam fir wreaths. They shipped off 500 that fall, and the contact proved useful when Morrill and his wife, Karen, began wholesaling wreaths in greater quantities.
From the company’s beginnings in the 1970s, Worcester has demonstrated a flair for marketing. The company’s headquarters in Harrington on Route 1 is a familiar site to travelers, with the main building appearing to be tied up in a gigantic bow.
And, like many successful entrepreneurs, he knows how to make lemonade out of lemons. In 1992, as a stiff recession took hold, there were suddenly more wreaths than customers – “We’re up to our knees in wreaths,” someone in the shipping department told Worcester. He then got the idea, harking back to that childhood trip, that they might be appreciated as decorations for soldiers’ graves. The donation to Arlington was made, with several thousand wreaths placed in the oldest section of the cemetery, and thus was born a campaign that has now brought more than a half a million wreaths to the nation’s military cemeteries.
Worcester has been featured in dozens of articles and broadcast interviews, as Wreaths Across America – now incorporated as a non-profit to permit donations – caught the imagination of countless families and communities.
He told USA Today in a 2006 interview that, “When people hear about what we’re doing, they want to know if I’m a veteran. I’m not. But I make it my business never to forget.”
The annual week-long wreath tour departs from Harrington and includes a send off in Bangor and stops in Augusta, Portland, Scarborough, and numerous other sites on the way to Arlington. The tour has become quite famous, and a good portion of that fame results from a photo taken of some of those snow-covered wreaths at Arlington. It was e-mailed around the world by military families, and includes a poem that begins, “Rest easy, sleep well my brothers.”
Along the way, a contingent of motorcyclists named the Patriot Guard Riders accompanies the procession; Blue Bird Ranch trucking of Jonesport provides the transportation. In all, this past holiday season thousands of wreaths were distributed to 384 military cemeteries and monuments, including 24 overseas and four wreath laying ceremonies in Iraq.
Wreaths also brightened the stark white tombstones at Togus, near Augusta, where thousands of Civil War veterans are buried in one of the nation’s oldest military cemeteries.
Worcester had just returned from the annual tour when a cell phone call found him out in his woodlot, which he began acquiring in 1999 and which now totals 4,000 acres – all managed to provide the fir “tips” that provide the basic material for the wreaths.
“None of the other companies manage their own trees,” he said. “They’re dependent on buying from others.” While it required a significant investment up front, the forest land is becoming productive, and Worcester has begun fertilizing the trees to produce the optimal green that produces best-sellers among wreaths.
Worcester described his forest acreage as “a work in progress,” and would like to expand it further. He sees a need ultimately for 10,000 acres of managed woodlots. Unlike Christmas tree producers, who cut what they plant after a decade or so, Worcester manages existing native woodlands for maximum yield. “Some people get the wrong idea about what we’re doing,” he said. “They ought to come out and take a look at how we’re improving the forest.”
Since 1983, Worcester has had a contract with L.L. Bean to provide all the wreaths the mail order giant sells, and the company now ships exclusively through mail order, rather than wholesaling. It employs 600 people through the two-month wreath-making season, from October to late December, and 50 employees year-round.
L.L. Bean remains the company’s largest customer, and when it was suggested that Worcester Wreath might be the L.L. Bean of wreath-makers, Morrill Worcester was flattered by the comparison. He said, “They’re very good at what they do. We’ve learned a lot from them.”
There are other wreath-makers in Washington County, most of them much smaller, and Worcester concentrates on making a better product that’s consistent in quality and adaptable to a wide variety of shapes. In addition to the traditional circular wreaths, Worcester Wreath also produces displays, centerpieces, and other balsam products – 21 in all in the current catalogue.
Among the other challenges of the business are keeping ahead of insect pests, maintaining the color of the balsam tips, and matching supply with demand. Ideally, “We like to pack the wreaths the same day they’re cut.”
Shipping – except during the annual wreath tour – is largely by commercial carriers, including FedEx, UPS, and the U.S. Postal Service, whose trucks pull up to the loading docks regularly during the busy season. About the often regrettable state of the roads Downeast, Worcester said, “We’re not totally blind to it,” but since he contracts for shipping, it’s not one of his day-to-day concerns.
Employees include about 100 migrant workers through the U.S. Department of Labor visa program, plus another 50 tree-trimmers through a separate contract. But Worcester says he hires more local people than before, who are drawn by steady seasonal employment in a part of the state where good jobs are scarce. “It isn’t high tech,” he said. “It’s labor-intensive, and we’re known for valuing good work.”
Still, wreath-making is seasonal, and Worcester has always had other businesses in an annual rotation. He has a peat moss business, owns a gravel pit and also sells concrete products as part of a paving business, working mostly on municipal projects, parking lots and driveways. Worcester has already started the sometimes tricky process of bringing the business along to a new generation. He and Karen have six children; among them, son Robbie runs the concrete and asphalt business, while another son, Michael, is general manager of the wreath company.
Of his success in the wreath business, he says, “We almost invented it.” Along with blueberries, apples and lobster, Washington County is now known as one of the nation’s largest wreath producers.
Morrill Worcester combines a quiet demeanor with a sure sense of what will work and what won’t in various business endeavors. Persistence and planning for the long-term, he said, are the keys to success. Yet shrewdness is not the only quality necessary, in his estimation. “Without the fire in the belly,” he said, “you won’t go far.”
Concord Coach Lines rolls into Augusta
By Maria Fuentes
Almost from the beginning, Harry Blunt knew he was going to run a different kind of bus company. After purchasing Edmunds Bus Line of New London, New Hampshire, in 1967 and Capital Transit of Concord two years later, Blunt started Concord Coach Lines – and with it, a strategy to capture a new market for intercity motor coach transportation.
Named for the historic stagecoaches manufactured in New Hampshire’s capital, Concord Coach was at first a charter company similar to several others in northern New England. The 1970s were a time of great change for bus companies, Blunt said in a recent interview. Airline deregulation and lower fares made air travel an everyday experience for middle income Americans, and cut heavily into intercity bus travel.
Bus stations in most cities became increasingly run down, and bus passengers were largely low-income families and individuals. Blunt remembers seeing a Greyhound Bus annual report in the 1990s that said only those in the lowest 20 percent of the socio-economic strata of America still rode buses regularly. “We thought there was a much bigger market for public transportation than that,” he said – and he decided to test his theory.
“The traditional bus networks [Greyhound and Trailways] were organized as hub and spoke systems, much like the airlines,” he said. Buses passing through northern New England cities such as Portland and Bangor were “feeder” routes for hubs like Boston and New York, with many stops and long travel times. What Concord Coach saw was the need for high-frequency point-to-point service between city pairs, such as Portland to Bangor and Portland to Boston.
In 1980, Concord Coach acquired the routes of the former Trailways of New England and began offering express service to Boston and Logan Airport. The route times were comparable to private automobiles. The company took the name Concord Trailways, which it retained until the end of 2007 when it returned to the original Concord Coach Lines.
But there was more to the formula than that. Buses and terminals had to be “clean, convenient and safe,” Blunt said. “It had to pass the mother-daughter test. Would you want to use the rest rooms there? Would you feel safe dropping your grandmother off at the bus station?”
Blunt’s strategy, indeed, brought back passengers, and Concord Trailways expanded to Maine in 1992, with terminal service in Portland and Boston.
The company opened its own station in Portland next to I-295 in 1996, and it was substantially expanded, with direct interstate access, when the Downeaster trains began to run in late 2002. Now, the big Concord Coach buses are a familiar sight on the region’s interstates, from Littleton, Berlin and North Conway through southern New Hampshire to Boston and I-95 from Bangor through southern Maine, also arriving at Boston South Station.
The company’s most recent Maine addition is a new terminal in Augusta, just north of the Civic Center. The addition of service to the capital had been planned since 2005 but delayed by land use disputes with neighbors. The terminal finally opened in September 2008, with six motor coach operators and four station employees.
“As it turned out, it wasn’t the best time to open a new transportation facility,” Blunt said. But passenger numbers have been growing each month, and by next year the terminal should be well on its way to a projected 40,000 passengers annually, comparable to Bangor.
Blunt credits Peter Thompson, former Augusta mayor and long-time president of the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce, with his insight into the changing nature of the capital city. “It’s now much more of a hub than it was, and that’s why we decided to build there.”
Dana Knapp is manager of Concord Coach’s Maine operations, and has been with the company since 1992. Before that, he had worked at Cyr Bus Lines, where he’d run charter and school buses for many years. Knapp started at Concord Coach managing the Bangor terminal. He was promoted to his present position in 1994, and he sits on the MBTA board of directors.
Knapp echoes Blunt’s comments about Augusta as a third Maine terminal to go with Portland and Bangor. “Augusta was in transition from a government center to more of a retail center,” he said. “We saw Augusta as a hub for the entire area,” extending from Newport and Farmington to the north to Belfast and the Midcoast area.
The company sees diversity in its customer base. Knapp said the peak travel months in Maine are April and August, followed by July. In the summer, many tourists arrive in Maine via bus, while Mainers pack the seats in April on their way to spring vacations. Business travelers include airline employees flying out of Logan, and nurses who commute to work in Boston hospitals.
Knapp said Concord Coach’s stability has encouraged longevity in the workforce. Some of the drivers have been with the company for 30 years.
Perhaps Concord’s most visible success in Maine is the Portland Transportation Center, where huge parking lots are packed day and night by cars whose owners are traveling to Boston by both bus and train. With access to I-295 literally seconds away, the terminal meets all the criteria for convenience, and the terminal itself is always well lit and immaculate.
Blunt took what many would see as a risk in aligning his existing bus terminal with the Amtrak trains. In many parts of the country, trains and bus lines are fierce competitors, and they keep their distance.
Blunt sees it differently. “We’re both in the public transportation business. At best, we’re getting 8 to 10 percent of all the intercity travel between Portland and Boston. That means 90 percent are still driving in their cars.” Still, in 2009 trains and buses are expected to move more than three quarters of a million passengers in and out of Maine, something many wouldn’t have thought possible even a decade ago.
Cooperation goes well beyond the joint station location. Patrons can buy a Flex Pass that enables them to ride one way on the train, and back on the bus, which better fits the schedules of many day travelers.
The Portland terminal’s experience confirms Blunt’s belief about what it takes to encourage the use of public transportation today. The original Amtrak plan was to locate the train terminal near the old Union Station on St. John Street, with 75 to 100 parking places. “If you want people to ride, you have to provide parking,” he said.
How does ridership compare with the two options? The Northern New England Rail Authority reports that approximately 235,000 passengers were transported to and from Maine by the Downeaster during its last fiscal year, ending in June 2008. Concord Coach carried approximately 430,000 passengers to and from Maine during the same period.
Blunt is candid about the advantages of each mode of travel. The train “is more spacious and has a food car. That can be nice on the way back at the end of the day.” Concord’s buses, however, are faster and operate much more frequently – one an hour at peak periods – and offer direct service to the airport and to many points north and south of Portland. Concord serves 13 towns and cities in Maine, and nine in New Hampshire.
He does have some concern about the taxpayer subsidies that have been growing to support the Amtrak runs, which cover at least 40 percent of operating costs. “At some point, people need to decide how much is appropriate, and whether that’s the best use of public resources,” he said.
As an example, a $1 fare increase on the 235,000 Maine passengers could have given MaineDOT another quarter million dollars to be used elsewhere, and would have still provided a very reasonable train fare for Maine passengers.
Dana Knapp notes that Concord Coach receives no federal or state money to operate its buses and is one of the larger payers into the Maine Turnpike system, contributing $1 million since the company began serving passengers in Maine.
The future of public transportation in northern New England is bright, Harry Blunt believes, and it’s about more than the price of gasoline.
After a year in which gas prices peaked at $4.13 a gallon in June, then plunged to less than $2 by November, it might seem hard to predict future demands.
But bus travel is dependent on many other factors, including ease of access, frequent service, “and the major cost and hassles” of traveling in a large city, including parking, congestion and time, Blunt said. A movement back to living in service center communities and much greater environmental awareness of the costs of automobile use are other factors suggesting that bus travelers will increase steadily in numbers, he said.
Plus, the shine really is off the automobile. “When I was growing up, this was not only travel, it was romance,” he said. “Every kid in town wanted a Pontiac GTO, or a Corvette. That’s what you dreamed about. It’s not like that for kids today.”
Cars still will be used in large numbers, but young people are far more likely to hop on a bus or train than their parents were, he said. “When you start looking at alternatives, you start using them, too.”
Having gotten this far, Blunt says it’s important to continue removing impediments to bus travel. The “E-ticket” is another change the company is pushing. “To be able to buy your ticket online, and use it whenever you want, is an advantage over having to wait in line at a ticket counter.”
Blunt isn’t sure if he’ll be around for the crest of the new wave in public transportation that he helped create through his innovations and long-range planning – or whether it will be the next generation who could be guiding the company by then.
Regardless of his own role, Concord Coach Lines, the company Harry Blunt built from the ground up, seems certain to remain an important player in getting Mainers to their destinations for a long time to come. N
Concord Coach Lines at a glance
Concord Coach Lines is the largest independent bus company in northern New England. The company operates scheduled bus service to communities in Maine and New Hampshire to Boston and Logan International Airport. Here are a few facts about the company:
- Founded in Concord, New Hampshire, in 1967.
- Joined the National Trailways Bus System in 1980 and changed its name to Concord Trailways. Dropped “Trailways” in 2006, and Concord Coach Lines became the official name again.
- Serves 13 cities and towns in Maine. Began service to Portland in January 1992; service to Bangor started in June 1992; and service along coastal Route 1 began in 1993.
- Carried more than 4 million Maine passengers since 1992.
- Carried an estimated 485,000 Maine passengers in 2008.
- Employs 60 full-time and part-time employees in Maine.
- Tolls paid to use the Maine Turnpike since 1992 – more than $1,000,000.
- Amount paid in Maine fuel tax since 1999 – more than $600,000.
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.