Why rail? Why roads and bridges? Why now?
Rail is the big topic in this issue of Maine Trails, and on these pages, you’ll read about big changes brewing in the state’s passenger and freight rail network. You’ll also read about efforts by state leaders in Augusta to put forward a “jobs bond,” with funding for rail, road and bridge infrastructure as a significant component of a homegrown economic recovery package.
The question is this: Why rail? Why roads and bridges? And why is investment in transportation so very important right now?
The answer is simple: The economy.
Maine and the country are struggling to recover from one of the worst recessions in the nation’s history. Even though we have begun to see some signs that the economy is turning around, the recovery is still a fragile one. Here in Maine, we put our federal stimulus dollars for transportation to work very quickly.
Thanks to MaineDOT’s very timely efforts to get contracts out, Maine was the first state in the country to obligate 100 percent of its American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds for transportation ($137 million), and those dollars did exactly what they were supposed to do. According to a study just released by the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials (AASHTO) (see On Ramp, page 13), we’ve completed nearly three-quarters of the 73 transportation projects funded by ARRA, improved nearly 200 miles of highway and rehabilitated or replaced eight bridges.
That was a shot in the arm for Maine’s economy, especially given the absolutely dismal year it would have been for transportation contracts without the ARRA funding. According to AASHTO, ARRA has put Maine people back to work (as many as 3,000 jobs will have been created or supported thanks to these projects). We also have a lot to show for it in improved mobility for Maine citizens (198 miles of road repaired or rehabilitated and eight bridges fixed). Still, construction unemployment in Maine is even higher than the national average of 27 percent. That needs to change.
More jobs in rails and ports
In January and February, the federal government announced grants from two more components of the ARRA funding, high-speed rail and TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery). Maine received an additional $49 million: $35 million to extend passenger service to Freeport and Brunswick and another $14 million of investments in Maine’s three largest ports.
Like highway and bridge projects, investments in ports and rail, can create jobs in the short term – engineering and construction jobs that are needed to establish the new, expanded passenger rail network. The New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA) estimates 200 Maine jobs will result from the extension of the line. These rail and ports projects also have the “build it and they will come” type of economic benefits – in lower shipping costs for our products and expanded retail and tourism activity. These are tangible returns on investment that will have lasting impacts on Maine’s economy.
The economy is also at the root of another big rail story in Maine, the efforts to save a 233-mile freight rail line in northern Maine. Last year, Montreal Maine & Atlantic announced its intention to abandon the line because it was no longer profitable. The line has a long history of serving the state’s resource based industries, and with the economic downturn, those industries have suffered greatly.
As this magazine was going to print, the Maine Legislature was preparing to debate two proposals for a transportation bond that include between $17 million and $20 million to purchase the MM&A’s northern line. The proposed bonds also set aside $28 million to $47.5 million for highway construction. (One plan includes $9 million for marine transportation.)
As Senate President Libby Mitchell said of the bond package introduced by her and a group of legislative leaders, “In these difficult times, we have to take prudent steps by making investments that get people working.” Governor Baldacci, who presented the second bond proposal, also hopes these infrastructure investments will spur job growth and retention in the state’s economy.
The MBTA board of directors supports a strong transportation bond, the jobs it will create and the economic opportunity it would create for Maine. We will work with the legislature and Governor Baldacci through the negotiation process of coming up with a final bond package. In conclusion, I would like to thank all of the MBTA members who have been so active in recent months on these and other important transportation issues. Several MBTA members have been part of the Technical Advisory Committee for the Maine State Rail Plan. And many more of you have testified before the Transportation Committee and contacted Maine’s Congressional leaders about rail, road and bridge issues during the past few months.
I look forward to seeing many of you at our annual meeting, Thursday, May 20 at the Augusta Civic Center.