Maine Trails, June - July '09
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Questions of transportation
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Taking on the $3 billion challenge
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Manzer goes ‘Green’

Maine News

Questions of transportation. Transportation Committee members Senator Joseph C. Perry and Representative Charles B. Harlow talk about the stimulus, paving cuts and the state of Maine’s transportation network.

By Maria Fuentes
 
Do you think Maine will see real benefits from the federal stimulus package? If so/not, why?
 
Sen. Perry: Sure. We are the first state to have committed all of our funds to projects, so we are definitely getting the stimulus funds out there in the way it was intended. It has put people to work, and we are starting to get some of our needs addressed. The stimulus is not the only answer, but it is clearly an important piece.
 
Rep. Harlow: I do – definitely! Especially when you look at the I-295 project between Gardiner and Topsham, which was a critical project that needed to get done. My area also benefitted because the stimulus funds provided money for the Veranda Street Bridge in Portland, and I hope it will provide funding for the Casco Bay Island Transit District (CBITD), as well as rail. [Editor’s note: The federal government announced that CBITD would receive stimulus funding for a replacement ferry after this interview with Rep. Harlow.]
 
What about Maine’s transportation infrastructure has hurt the state’s economy? What has helped the economy?
 
Sen. Perry: Improvements to rails and ports have helped us compete in the global economy.
One thing that has hurt is the 80,000-pound weight restriction on portions of the interstate. If we could increase the weight limit to 100,000 pounds consistently throughout the state, that would certainly help the economy. Another issue is posted roads, which hurt our rural economy. This is a function of our inability to bring our transportation infrastructure to a modern standard.
 
Rep. Harlow: The turnpike – and the interstate as a whole – have both been very helpful to the economy, as has been the Downeaster. On the marine side, Hapag Lloyd has been an economic boost to the Portland region. When we improve Portland Harbor, we will have even more economic activity as Portland is becoming an even bigger destination for cruise ships.
 
On the negative side, we are Vacationland and a key destination for tourists; however, the roads leading to some of our most important attractions are horrible. Maybe the roads don’t keep tourists away, but the state of our roads is certainly not encouraging them to come back. Tourism is our biggest industry, and we ought to be encouraging them to stay.
 
What is the most critical transportation need facing the state and the people in
your district?
 
Sen. Perry: The most critical need is having a reliable system. The highways are the backbone of our system, and the other modes must all work together to work efficiently. All the modes are interlinked. We are at the end of the pipe line in terms of the geography, but in terms of importing, we are at the beginning of the line.
 
Rep. Harlow: The most important need is repairing the arteries that connect different towns, like Route 302, Route 9 and Warren Avenue to Westbrook. These are the critical links that bring regions and communities together and also are vital to commerce.
 
Based on what happened during this past session, the MaineDOT can only fund 250 miles of maintenance surface treatment (MST), when it should be funding 1,200 to 1,400 miles. Your thoughts?
 
Sen. Perry: It is beyond a shame that we are neglecting our roads in this way. Our roads are such an important piece of our entire economy in the state of Maine, not to mention the hundreds of employees of construction companies that won’t be doing this work.
 
It is also a shame that the little bit of MST we are doing comes at the expense of our long-term capital improvements. All in all, we have this investment of 8,500 miles of roads that we are neglecting. The long-term result is going to be more costly.
 
Rep. Harlow: We need to increase the gas tax. It is a user fee and the more you drive, the more you should pay. The cost of the fuel tax proposal would only have cost motorists – on average – an additional $50 per year. I don’t feel good at all that we didn’t fix this problem – it is irresponsible. People have told me that they don’t mind increasing the fuel tax as long as we ensure it goes to fixing the roads. 
 
What was the most significant transportation success this session?
What was your biggest disappointment?
 
Sen. Perry: Educating the legislature on the needs, and ongoing efforts to educate the public on the needs of our transportation system might be – in the long run – the most important thing to come out of this session. When people understand the need and the costs, they will support a system. If they don’t understand the need, it will be hard. The gas tax is certainly a funding mechanism that has outlived its usefulness. Maybe there will be an opportunity in the long-run to find a stable, dependable, adequate funding source.
 
My biggest disappointment was adjourning without funding maintenance paving. Again, the little bit we are doing comes at the expense of long-term TransCap funds that help address our earlier concerns about posting and inadequate roads.
 
Rep. Harlow: I was pleased about the passage of LD 862: “An Act to Improve the Health of Maine Citizens and Safety of Pedestrians,” which I sponsored. I am proud that my daughter Denise came up with the concept and asked me to submit the bill. She is a world-class runner and Olympic qualifier who has run in five marathons. I am an advocate for bicyclists and pedestrians. I used to teach driver ed, and we need to do more to educate motorists about safety relative to biking and walking. The new law requires that motorists stay three feet away from runners or walkers on public roads. This is a safety issue.
 
My biggest disappointment was when we failed to come up with a means of paying for the roads. I hope we do it later this year when we get back together. I must say this is a great committee to work with. I love being on this committee. I have been on five legislative committees and Transportation is my favorite.
 
What about outside of transportation?
 
Sen. Perry: As chair of the Taxation Committee, I was proud that we were able to pass significant tax reform into law. If you look at tax reform as strictly how much money any individual Mainer is going to save on their tax bill, it is not terribly significant, maybe $200 per filer. That is a nice break but it doesn’t change anybody’s life. What we did will move the state further ahead in a positive way – specifically, reducing our top tax rate by over 20 percent from 8.5 percent to 6.5 percent. Over time, that is going to pay far bigger dividends than the actual dollar savings that any one of us might enjoy next year.
I liken it to investing in an adequate transportation system. If we neglect it, the dire effects will not show up next year, but over time, these things really matter. Especially when we change the negative perception of our state and make us more attractive and competitive nationally.
 
Rep. Harlow: The gay marriage bill was the most important legislation we passed this session.
 
Which airport do you most frequently fly out of (Portland, Bangor, Boston, Manchester)? How many times a year do you fly?
 
Sen. Perry: I don’t fly a lot, but usually I fly from Bangor. Maybe once or twice a year. It is no bargain driving hours and spending money on gas, tolls and parking, and dealing with traffic and crowds, when Bangor is so quick and convenient. We are fortunate to have a world-class airport in Bangor.
 
Rep. Harlow: Portland, but I fly very rarely.
 
What is the most common constituent complaint you hear about transportation?
 
Sen. Perry: The big trucks going through downtown Bangor and up Route 2 in Hermon is No. 1. The truth is that in my senate district, we really don’t have some of the problems that rural Maine has. I used to be in sales and there is hardly a road in this state that I haven’t traveled. I used to go to every corner of the state. I know first-hand the problems that rural Maine has in their transportation system.
 
Rep. Harlow: I hear a lot about Route 302, because it is all broken up. It is a terrible road and we need to fix it!
 
How have your transportation habits / commuting habits changed in the last year?
 
Sen. Perry: I know that last summer, after prices hit $4 per gallon, we did things differently. Prior to that, we didn’t think twice about making the 25-mile drive to our camp on Green Lake, or whether we should take one car or two. We were driving less, and we certainly planned our trips much better. We do coordinate a little better and drive a little less, and I do try to use the car that gets the best gas mileage.
 
A pet peeve I have is when people go to New Hampshire to buy their gas. I always buy my gas in Maine – even when I am down there, I refuse to buy gas in New Hampshire. We need those revenues to stay in Maine.
 
Rep. Harlow: My transportation habits haven’t changed in the least.
 
What is the worst and best road you frequently travel on?
 
Sen. Perry: The City of Bangor keeps their roads up well, and the interstate is in pretty good shape. Like I said, we are fortunate that way.
 
Rep. Harlow: The best road is the interstate and the worst road is Route 17 between Rumford and Rangeley. 
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