69 going on 70
As the Maine Better Transportation Association heads toward its 70th anniversary, a look back shows that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
by Kathryn Buxton
The maine good roads association was founded in hard times. The year was 1939, and the country was recovering from the Great Depression. The early members of the group consisted of local community and business leaders, forward thinking individuals who were concerned about how Maine was going to finance the rebuilding of a state highway system that had fallen into dangerous disrepair through poor maintenance and neglect.
Those leaders also saw opportunities in transportation – that if Maine could modernize its transportation system, it would help restore economic viability to the state. They had their work cut out for them.
Even before the Depression, the state had been struggling to manage its massive inventory of roads adequately. The Maine State Highway Commission was a woefully small and underfunded arm of state government. And without the means to modernize the system, the future of Maine’s highway network – and its economy – struggled.
Thus on September 25, 1939, the Maine Good Roads Association was formed, and its members never looked back. Today, the organization has 700 members and goes by a different name – the Maine Better Transportation Association. It also follows a broadened mission that incorporates a wide range of transportation modes – roads, aviation, marine, transit, bicycle and pedestrian. Still, the seeds of its current role in the public debate on transportation infrastructure were sown during those early days.
“The driving force has always been funding, but our mission has broadened,” explained Robert Desjardins, who joined Maine Good Roads during the 1960s at the urging of Chuck Cianchette, one of his bosses at Cianchette Brothers. Desjardins became president of Maine Good Roads in 1980 and went on to receive the organization’s highest honor – the Maine Transportation Achievement Award.
How to fund or not to fund
The first years of the organization’s existence were active and focused. The association’s first order was to push the legislature for an amendment dedicating Highway Fund revenue solely for highway purposes. It passed in 1944. The association had found its calling.
Another of Maine Good Roads’ first big projects was advocating for the construction of a modern highway that would connect Maine with New Hampshire, Boston and eventually the Maritimes. There was no public source of funding for this new highway, and so the organization backed the formation of the Maine Turnpike Authority that could pay for the construction from future toll revenues. It was a grand and ambitious project, but Maine Good Roads and its board believed it would be in the state’s best interest.
The first stretch of that highway, from Kittery to Portland, was completed in 1947, and today the road remains the most critical commercial link for the state.
Also in those early years, the organization launched publication of The Maine Trail, a magazine devoted to discussion of the issues. The first issue was published in April 1941. Its mission: a “common ground for a frank discussion of our highway problems.”
Over the next 40 years, much of the organization’s efforts were devoted to averting diversion of money from the state’s Highway Fund and efforts to establish a funding source – fuel taxes and other state fees – that could adequately support the state’s highway system.
The topic of the arguments – to fund or not to fund – have not changed. Neither has the intensity. Still, the path of the discussion has shifted as the times have demanded, said John Bridge, a 50-year Maine Good Roads/MBTA member whose father, Chester, was a charter member of the organization. The Maine Transportation Achievement Award winner remembers going to the organization’s September conventions as a boy with his family and, in a sense, grew up with the organization. When he looks back, he sees changes in the organization’s advocacy that reflected major political shifts over the past seven decades.
During the early years, he said, user fees funded the biggest projects, principally tolls and the gas tax. But that changed over the next two decades.
“Back in the ’50s and ’60s, ‘pay as you go’ was preferred,” said Bridge who worked on some of the biggest highway projects of the past six decades – including reconstruction of Route 17 between Augusta and Rockland, construction of the interstate and Route 9 from South China to Hampden.
He said with the federal government’s role in building the interstate and the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, the focus shifted away from tolls to an increased role for the gas tax.
More recently, he said, the shift has been to more reliance on bonding and, he notes, the process has become increasingly political, as well. That means that when lawmakers begin to discuss options including raising the gas tax or introducing a toll or a new user fee, the discussion gets bogged down by lawmakers who say “no tax increases, not on my shift.”
Bridge said that is a shame, because more often than not Mainers have shown their willingness to pay for what they want – and that’s why transportation bond referendums pass with such comfortable margins, year after year.
“Everyone agrees in principle that we need to fix our roads and bridges,” said Bridge, “but there hasn’t always been the political will in the legislature to do what’s needed, despite strong support of the general public.”
Still, Richard Martin, another former organization president and Maine Transportation Achievement Award winner, sees hope in the recent public discussions that have arisen around funding concepts such as mileage fees, tolls, public-private partnerships and projects like the private east-west highway being developed by Peter Vigue. He said we must come up with new funding options. “We can’t just rely on the gas tax,” said Martin.
While the means for funding transportation has been a consistent theme throughout the life of the organization, the 1980s saw a fundamental change for the organization.
“I joined in the late ’50s and until the early ’80s, it was pretty similar every year,” said Martin. He recalled how the membership was mostly contractors and every year, after a long hard summer, they would have a convention at the old Samoset Resort in Rockland. While Maine Good Roads had begun with the mission of promoting the importance of modern highways to a healthy state economy, the group “wasn’t as business-like as it is now,” said Martin.
He noted that by the late ’70s, it was becoming clear the organization would need to reinvent itself if it were to survive. Membership was static and the organization was nearly broke. “We had to diversify and get new members,” said Martin.
After 44 years, the organization changed its name and its mission. The new name, Maine Better Transportation Association, signaled a broader advocacy that encompassed all forms of transportation – rail, marine, transit and aviation. The mission change injected new life into the organization.
Martin, who worked with H.E. Sargent for 40 years and now runs a consulting business, said those changes positioned the organization for the tumultuous decade ahead. During the 80s and early ’90s, the state began to look at how a robust and interconnected transportation network encompassing all the modes could benefit the state’s economy and preserve its quality of life.
Changing the name and broadening the organization’s mission “was one of the two best decisions we have made as an organization,” said Martin. By taking on the bigger picture of transportation in the state, it has given the MBTA stronger voice, he said, and that has been essential, as the organization has tackled the big issues of the past two decades.
Martin said that hiring Maria Fuentes as the organization’s executive director was the other significant decision the MBTA board made during that era. Fuentes came on board in the early ’90s and has steered the group through many changes. Martin noted that it was after Fuentes joined, the MBTA began to attract a larger and more diverse membership. “Things really started to happen when we hired her,” said Martin. “We carry a lot more weight around the state now because of Maria.”
From leading a public referendum campaign to widen the Maine Turnpike in 1997 to advocating for transportation funding reform and passage of LD 1790: An Act to Secure Maine’s Transportation Future in 2007, the group has kept the need for a safe, efficient transportation network at the forefront of the public agenda in Maine. The group also has campaigned for passage of bond referendums over the past 40 years in which voters have approved hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for roads, bridges, airports, rail, trails, ports and ferries.
The group has made other changes as well. The MBTA board established the MBTA Infrastructure Fund in 1996 to create a war chest that would give the group the resources it needed to raise awareness about critical transportation issues. The group also decided to focus on the future of the industry and try to encourage more young people to pursue transportation careers in the state. The board founded the MBTA Educational Foundation in 2000, a tax-exempt, non-profit charitable organization that awards scholarships to deserving Maine students studying transportation-related fields of study. Since its inception, the foundation has raised more than $250,000 and awarded dozens of scholarships.
During the early years, Maine Good Roads began a tradition that continues today - the annual fall convention. The event comes at a critical point in the transportation industry’s annual cycle, after summer tourists leave the state and more than half of the way through Maine’s heavy construction season. Desjardins remembers the first time he attended the fall convention, he felt instantly at ease.
“We always had a good time at the conventions. Everyone works hard all summer, and you look forward to the convention and being able to relax,” said Desjardins. He credits the organization’s success with the balance it achieves between its serious mission and the members’ sense of collegiality.
In recent years, the convention and its annual summer golf tournament have become important fundraisers for the educational foundation and the MBTA Infrastructure Fund. That generosity and commitment to advancing the transportation industry is very much in the spirit of the organization that was founded during hard times in 1939.
“Everyone works hard and is very competitive,” said Bridge adding that everyone is quick to put that competitiveness aside to work together for common industry goals. “This is a generous group,” said Bridge.