Meet the chairs
MBTA Executive Director Maria Fuentes recently spoke with the chairs of the 124th Maine Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Transportation about the stimulus, the role transportation has in Maine’s economy, the most critical state needs and other important issues facing the state and its transportation system.
Do you think Maine will see real benefits from the federal stimulus package? If so/not, why?
Sen. Damon: Yes, because we have such needs and, although it doesn’t come anywhere near solving the need, $130 million will definitely help. My fear with the stimulus is that people will see it as the cure, the fix, the final answer and that is so far from reality. Our transportation needs are in the billions (with a capital “B”), and $130 million is, indeed, only a start.
Rep. Mazurek: Yes, there will be real benefits in putting people back to work and in improving our infrastructure. Most of the benefits will be relatively short-term, but some will be long-term, such as the I-295 project from Topsham to Gardiner. The benefits of that project will go far beyond the life of the stimulus.
What about Maine’s transportation infrastructure has hurt the state’s economy and what has helped?
Sen. Damon: The economy of Maine is negatively impacted whenever: a truckload of goods cannot drive on the roads because of posted weights; a truckload of goods cannot cross a bridge and has to drive extra distances to get to market; people – in the normal course of driving – have to shell out hundreds of dollars to repair damage to their vehicles from driving our deteriorated roads.
When we’ve been able to make the needed repairs to our infrastructure, that has put people to work, and that helps our economy.
Rep. Mazurek: It has helped those areas around the interstate; conversely, others who are not along that corridor have suffered. The state’s best road is the interstate, but it only covers a narrow strip of Maine. We don’t have good east-west connections beyond the interstate. We need strong arteries beyond I-95, whether it is roads or rail. The areas of the state that are lacking are the ones that typically don’t have strong economic development. The communities that are along a strong road or rail network are generally doing better than those that aren’t.
What is the most critical transportation need facing the state? What about facing the people in your district?
Sen. Damon: I don’t know where to start. The obvious answer is building our road and bridge system to allow for safe and efficient movement of goods and people. Another need is that of a greater and more focused concentration on our marine port and rail system. That would be very beneficial to existing businesses and to those who may be enticed to locate here.
In my district, it’s finding a way to move the traffic that gridlocks in and around Ellsworth and Mount Desert Island. Also, the Route 3 corridor going into Bar Harbor is substandard and inadequate for the volume of traffic. It is certainly not appropriate to lead people to the beauty of Acadia National Park.
Rep. Mazurek: Money – or lack of it – is the biggest challenge or need facing my district and Maine. We need a good, steady revenue source. Indexing the fuel tax is not meeting the need. People are driving less now, and I believe people have altered their behavior and will continue to drive less, even if fuel prices stay low. We are missing the boat if we continue to rely on an old funding method like the gas tax, even when people are driving less.
The CanAm Connections study discusses transportation infrastructure in the Northeast border corridor and its effects on economic development. What steps do you think Maine should take to remove the barriers to global trade opportunities?
Sen. Damon: The first thing we should do is get a port permitted on Sears Island and get a container facility built there. Sears Island, as a cargo port, working in conjunction with Mack Point as a break bulk operation, would position Maine very strategically in global trade routes.
Rep. Mazurek: We need to improve our freight connections and be more competitive – as a region – in moving goods. We have a strong marine system, but we need to improve it. For example, expanding the port of Portland will help our freight system, as will developing Eastport and Mack Point. Sears Island is a great opportunity to improve freight in the region. We need a port there.
The Highway Fund structural gap is six times that of the General Fund. Do you support increasing revenues to go into
the state’s Highway Fund?
Sen. Damon: The current model for funding our Highway Fund budget has inherent inadequacies. Though at one time, simply charging a tax on fuel might have been enough to fund our projects, it no longer serves the need. We have to look at every possible alternative, including but not limited to additional user fees for those who use our roads and bridges.
Rep. Mazurek: Yes, I do. One possibility would be a surcharge on gas, with a sunset once prices hit a certain point. We also need to take a strong look at tolls. Something has to be done; we are spinning our wheels. We cannot rely on the fuel tax as a revenue source.
It clearly has seen better days.
Which airport do you most frequently fly out of? How many times a year do you fly?
Sen. Damon: The Bar Harbor-Hancock County Airport located in Trenton. Typically I fly about 10 times per year.
Rep. Mazurek: It depends on where I am going, but I tend to fly out of Portland or Boston. The number of times I fly varies.
Have you ever taken a ferry in Maine? Which ones? How frequently?
Sen. Damon: Yes, numerous times. I am privileged to count island communities within my district, and I have ridden on the ferries of the Maine State Ferry System and other private ferry services. It’s always curious to me when people say we don’t charge for our transportation services except for the Maine Turnpike. But when people travel to their homes on the islands, they pay dearly. It costs me $17 each way, without a vehicle, to travel to Isle au Haut to meet my constituents. Now, that’s a toll.
Rep. Mazurek: Yes, I take the ferry only occasionally now, but I used to take the ferry from Rockland to Vinalhaven and North Haven once a week for my job.
How many miles a year do you drive? Where are the majority of those miles driven?
Sen. Damon: Last year I drove 34,728 miles – throughout Maine.
Rep. Mazurek: 12,000 to 16,000 miles per year. Most of those miles are on Route 17 going back and forth to the state house.
What is the most common constituent complaint you hear about transportation?
Sen. Damon: The condition of the roads and the potholes in front of the caller’s house. Those may not be the most serious problems, but they’re the most serious to the people who are calling, and they are indicative of the condition of our infrastructure.
Rep. Mazurek: They complain about the roads, particularly in the spring, when roads get posted. I hear from folks working in the fishing and bait industries, as well as from the dirt haulers, whose livelihood is impacted when roads are closed. The most frequent complaint I get is probably from people who don’t like that we are putting calcium chloride on our roads.
How have your transportation/commuting habits changed in the last year?
Sen. Damon: Because of the gas prices, I have made conscious decisions about whether or not I really need to go to some meetings. I have also taken advantage of a transit system in my district. The Island Explorer bus system is a marvel and should be a model for transit systems throughout Maine.
Rep. Mazurek: Yes, we do more walking in town. We try to only use the car when we are going out of town. I think a lot of communities would benefit from using golf carts or zap [electric] cars, especially as our population is aging.
What are the worst and best roads you frequently travel on?
Sen. Damon: A road that ranks poorly is Route 230 - the Oak Point Road in Trenton. That road has seen a tremendous increase in commuter traffic because of the traffic volume on Route 3 and at the same time, many new homes have been built along it, compounding the need for an improved road.
The best road in Maine may be the Maine Turnpike. It is no coincidence that one pays to travel on that road, and it is in good condition as a result.
Rep. Mazurek: The worst road is Old County Road between Route 1 and Route 17 in Rockland. The best is I-95, with Route 17 being the second best.