We are taking enormous risks
By Deborah Dunlap Avasthi
When you work in the insurance industry, you tend to think a lot about risk.
And when you grow up in a family like mine – both my father and grandfather served as president and long-time board members of the Maine Good Roads and Maine Better Transportation associations – every time you get in your car to go to work, take your children to school or pass a large oncoming truck on a bad road while holding your breath, you see the risks Mainers face every day when they travel on crumbling roads and bridges. Naturally, you also look for ways that you can build on the past tradition of standing up for Maine’s transportation infrastructure.
This summer, the American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA) published a study that shows a direct correlation between investments in highway safety and the reduction in the number of highway fatalities. The study highlights the risks we take when we do not adequately fund capital safety improvements to our highways and bridges. Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP) Obligations and Fatalities on U.S. Highways takes a statistical look at factors that reduce highway fatalities and their associated costs.
Under the HSIP program, the federal government allocated $1.3 billion per year from 2006 to 2009 for highway safety projects. The start date for those safety obligations is particularly important, because “after more than 10 years with little change in the number of annual traffic fatalities, the number of fatalities began to drop just when HSIP was established.”
Ultimately, the study found that “for every $1 million invested, the annual savings in societal costs in the United States is an astounding $42.7 million annually.” That is a remarkable return on investment – and one we can hardly afford to ignore.
When you look at Maine’s highway safety statistics, you can see the effect of safety enhancements – or lack thereof – on a micro scale. Maine has fallen behind in its efforts to modernize its rural state highways. We have more miles of unbuilt roads than any other state – roads that do not meet modern safety standards. Every month we delay making these important safety investments, the risks mount and the cost of improvement escalates. A study released last year by The Road Information Program (TRIP) indicates that the fatality rate is three times higher on Maine’s rural roads than on all other state highways.
While the problem is particularly acute on Maine’s rural roads, we can see the risks associated with underfunding of Maine’s transportation network everywhere.
On I-295, one of the heaviest traveled highways in Maine, congestion and over capacity is a major concern. Additionally, Maine has hundreds of bridges that are 50 years or older and badly in need of being rebuilt or rehabilitated. And while our transit services are seeing increases in ridership, our rolling stock of buses is aging, and the systems we use to maintain our public transit network are in need of modernization. We have three deepwater ports that could serve as gateways to a growing market of international freight, but to make our ports competitive, we need to make key investments to better connect them with rail and highway systems throughout the state. Finally, Maine is embarking on a major effort to save a 233-mile section of rail line in Aroostook County, but the truth is, that is only one piece of a crumbling pie. We need to invest in rail throughout the state – through programs like the Industrial Rail Access Program (IRAP) – to help make our rail network more efficient and improve intermodal connections.
It is not going to be easy reducing our transportation risks, but the tremendous benefits – from reducing highway fatalities, easing the cost of getting our goods and services to market, ensuring job creation and protecting our quality of life – make it worthwhile to focus on this challenge. In all, MaineDOT estimates a $3.3 billion transportation funding shortfall over the next 10 years – and we need to take steps to fill the gap now, before the gap grows even larger and the risks grow even greater.
Now, as I take on the duties of Maine Better Transportation Association’s new president, I look forward to working with every one of our members so that together we can raise awareness of the great risks standing in the way of a better future for Maine and our families. We need to work with the new governor and legislature to support increased funding for transportation. In my father’s era – he was at the helm of this organizataion in 1976 – Maine’s highway transportation spending was 26 percent of all state spending, but today it is only 10 percent, yet transportation usage has increased dramatically over the same period. The shortfall in adequate funding is a serious issue that will likely have negative impacts on Maine’s economic development potential.
Looking forward, once again a new group of state and local candidates will be asking for our votes. Once again we will need to find out where they stand on issues that are important to us and our state – and let them know transportation matters and we want to find a practical funding solution.
Please be sure to watch for communications from MBTA on these critical issues as they come to the fore, and let us know how you would like to help.
Thanks in advance for your efforts. By working together and standing up for transportation issues, we can build on the great legacy of helping to make transportation safer and more efficient for all of Maine!