Transportation’s Top 10
From the stimulus to elections to paving challenges, a look back at the biggest transportation stories of 2009
By Kathryn Buxton
1. Did someone say ‘stimulus?’
At times, it seemed as if the stimulus was all anyone talked about. In February, when President Barack Obama signed the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 (ARRA), the stimulus was certainly the brightest spot on the country’s economic horizon.
The final legislation included nearly $787 billion in payments for everything from unemployment benefits to tax breaks. Only 6 percent was allocated for transportation – approximately $48 billion – and of that Maine received $130.7 million for highways and bridges and another $13.3 million for transit.
The highway and bridge funding came with strings attached. Half of it was to be obligated by summer’s end. That was a requirement many cash-starved state transportation departments gladly fulfilled. For its part, Maine was able to commit 100 percent of its ARRA transportation funding within 120 days. It went to more than 70 highway and bridge projects, including the $35 million reconstruction of a section of northbound I-295 from Brunswick to Topsham.
2. We have to wait, but for how long?
The six-year federal surface transportation funding authorization, known as SAFETEA-LU, expired on September 30, 2009, and Congress has yet to begin the nail-scraping negotiations that will lead to a final bill. In September, the House of Representatives approved a three-month extension that expired at year’s end. Another extension – this time through September 2010 – was passed in December just as the first extension was about to expire.
Delay causes long-term headaches for states, including Maine. Without a guarantee of funding, MaineDOT and other state DOTs are finding it difficult to plan long-term capital investments.
“When we get funding in spurts and stops, it is impossible to adhere to a long-term, well-managed transportation policy,” said Pete Rahn, MoDOT director and former president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. “Nothing is reliable about federal transportation funding right now, and that’s going to keep progress on hold.”
3. What does MST stand for?
Maine’s budget situation continued to worsen in 2009, prompting MaineDOT to cancel 75 percent of its scheduled 2010-2011 maintenance surface treatment (MST) paving program.
MST is what helps keep Maine’s network of roads in good working condition between major reconstructions. It keeps the water out and helps prevent potholes. During a typical biennium, MaineDOT should complete maintenance paving on 1,200-1,400 miles of state-funded roads. MaineDOT announced it is only able to to fund up to 300 more miles of MST paving in 2010.
Mainers will pay dearly for that, according to MBTA President Tom Martin. “That means hundreds of miles of state roads will become increasingly vulnerable to cracking and potholes,” wrote Martin in the June-July Maine Trails. “It means Mainers will pay hundreds of dollars more in maintenance costs to replace tires and align their vehicles. And as a society, it will cost us millions of dollars more in deferred maintenance – because every year we fail to perform routine maintenance, the more expensive the maintenance becomes.”
There was a ray of hope in December 2009: MaineDOT announced that budget trimming and efficiencies may yield some additional funding for MST paving.
4. Rail, high speed and otherwise
With the Obama administration’s call for federal investment in a high speed rail system for the country, rail has been a major topic of conversation in transportation circles throughout the country. In the fall of 2009, Maine submitted three passenger proposals for federal high speed rail grants for the Downeaster line (the grants will be announced this winter).
Freight rail was also in the spotlight. In August, Montreal, Maine and Atlantic announced plans to abandon 241 miles of track from Millinocket to Madawaska, including several branch lines, because revenues have not been strong enough to support the line’s operation. The area’s forest products industry has been especially hard hit during the economic downturn.
Rail advocates and several businesses that rely on rail service are anxious to keep the line in service. MaineDOT this fall applied for a $23 million discretionary TIGER (Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery) grant – part of the federal stimulus package – to purchase and repair the line. Announcement of the TIGER grants will come later this winter, as well.
Meanwhile, MaineDOT began work on a state rail plan to provide a comprehensive evaluation of Maine’s freight and passenger rail transportation system; its ownership, use, infrastructure, operations and maintenance; and its existing and potential effect on economic development. The draft plan was completed in late 2009, and is currently in the public review phase. A completed plan will be a prerequisite for future federal rail funding.
The Maine Section of the American Society of Civil Engineering (ASCE) released its first Report Card for Maine’s Infrastructure, and the exhaustive review ranked the state’s system of roads and bridges with D and a D+ respectively.
“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,” Maine Section ASCE President Erik J. Wiberg, P.E., told Maine Trails.
The report came out at year end 2008 and continued to make news well into 2009. It found that MaineDOT’s pavement preservation program typically receives only about half the funding needed (even less during the current biennium) – and predicted that if more funding was not secured, another 2,100 miles of state-maintained roads could fall into poor condition, adding to the 26 percent which already are rated “poor.”
The study also pointed to a more than $440 million funding gap for state bridges over the next 10 years, despite a recent measure passed by the Maine Legislature creating $160 million in new bridge funding. Currently 34 percent of Maine’s bridges are listed as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. The national average is 25 percent.
The MBTA celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2009, and Maine Trails took a look back and quickly determined the more things change, the more they stay the same.
In 1939, when the Maine Good Roads Association was founded, the organization’s argument for public investment in state roads and bridges was similar to that used by transportation industry advocates today: modernizing Maine’s transportation system could help restore economic viability to the state.
Maine Good Road’s first battle was to secure funding for the Maine State Highway Commission, a woefully small and underfinanced arm of state government. Maine Good Roads lobbied the legislature for an amendment dedicating Highway Fund revenue solely for highway purposes. That amendment passed in 1944.
Another early fight: the push for 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, so Maine Good Roads backed the formation of the Maine Turnpike Authority that could pay for the construction from future toll revenues. The first stretch of that grand and ambitious project, the section from Kittery to Portland was completed in 1947.
Maine Good Roads became the Maine Better Transportation Association in 1983, but even with its expanded advocacy efforts on behalf of marine, rail, air and highway transportation, it remains dedicated to improving the safety and efficiency of transportation throughout Maine.
Advocates for the North-South Highway scored a victory with Governor John Baldacci’s March endorsement of a plan that allows the Caribou Connector and the Presque Isle bypass projects – originally linked as a single project – to proceed separately.
The Caribou bypass will be the first to begin construction in 2010. Work to select a route for the Presque Isle bypass continues. Both bypasses will remove heavy truck traffic from downtown areas and are part of a much larger vision long advocated by the MBTA and central to a proposed 110-mile extension of the interstate.
The cost for completion of the Caribou segment is estimated at $20 million. It will be funded from a federal pot of $40 million secured by Senator Susan Collins, with support from Maine’s congressional delegation, for the North-South Highway project in the 1998 and 2005 federal transportation authorizations.
That means jobs throughout the state, at a time when Maine really needs the jobs, according to Maria Fuentes, executive director for the MBTA. Making traffic and freight movement through the region more efficient will create “benefits from this project for years to come,” she added.
8. ‘Bridge in a backpack’
“When you do something that’s never been done before, to be able to make a bridge essentially from a backpack, it changes the way we build bridges,” said Dr. Habib Dagher, director of the University of Maine’s AEWC Advanced Structures and Composites Center in Orono, announcing the center’s revolutionary new composite bridge design.
The university collaborated with the Maine Department of Transportation to build the first “bridge in a backpack” in Pittsfield in early 2009. The new 45-foot span was designed without the typical steel or concrete supports. Instead, it has composite arches that were developed in AEWC’s laboratory/manufacturing facility and inflated on the site.
MaineDOT is betting on the new technology. The department worked with AWEC to construct the Neal Bridge as a demonstration project and has tentatively set aside $6 million for six additional composite span bridges in its 2010-2011 budget. Dagher hopes the cost of composite bridges eventually will be 20 percent less than a standard bridge.
The groundbreaking work has attracted new investments to Maine, as well. Advanced Infrastructure Technologies, a newly formed investment group, has committed $20 million to fund a production and testing facility to produce many more.
9. Why doing what’s right pays
The Maine Development Foundation and the Maine Better Transportation Association released a report in July 2009 that determined a well maintained and efficient transportation system would bring new business to Maine, make existing businesses more competitive and significantly increase safety and the quality of life for Maine citizens.
The Difference is Night and Day: Why investing in highways and bridges is an investment in prosperity provided a behind-the-scenes look at the data that the economic research organization compiled when it included a transportation indicator in its annual Measures of Growth analysis. The new report included 18 facts about transportation investment. Nine show the dangers of underinvestment and neglect; nine demonstrate the benefits of adequate, strategic investments.
“Maine’s transportation infrastructure has fallen into disrepair, and with every failing bridge and posted state highway, the state’s economy and quality of life are at risk,” said Laurie Lachance, Maine Development Foundation president and CEO. “If Maine’s economy is going to thrive in the coming century, we must recognize the benefits of a safe and efficient transportation infrastructure and invest to protect those benefits.”
10. Don’t mess with my transportation funding!
MBTA and its members watched closely as Mainers went to the polls in November. How Maine voted on three ballot questions stood to significantly impact transportation funding on local and state levels.
In the end, the election turned out well for transportation advocates. Question 6, the $71.25 million transportation bond referendum, passed handily – by a 2-to-1 margin – and that assured funding during the current biennium for highways, bridges, ports and ferries, rail and aviation.
Questions 2 and 4, also on the ballot, were both defeated. Question 2 – the excise tax referendum that sought to reduce the tax paid on newer vehicles – was defeated by an almost 3-to-1 margin. Question 4, known as TABOR 2, was defeated with just over 60 percent of the vote. Question 4 was a redrafted version of a referendum the voters rejected in 2006.
MBTA members had worked hard to get the word out on all three issues, and to reinforce with voters the vital importance of investing in transportation infrastructure. Being made aware that transportation funding was at stake made a difference, according to MBTA Executive Director Maria Fuentes. “Mainers have a lot of trust that spending money on transportation infrastructure is money well spent. They know that what money we do spend creates a lot of family wage jobs,” said Fuentes.