Hitting the ground running
Question 3, the transportation bond just passed this June, but already the MBTA board has an eye on what will happen after November’s gubernatorial election.
By Kathryn Buxton
Maine voters like to invest in transportation infrastructure.
That fact was borne out once again when voters went to the polls on June 8. Question 6, the transportation bond, was one of four “jobs bond” issues on the ballot, all of which the MBTA board of directors had supported in the weeks leading up to the primary election. Three other “jobs bond” issues – having to do with funding for R&D, drinking, waste water treatment facilities and more – all passed as well.
Voter turnout was relatively high for a June election. More than 550,00 Mainers cast their votes, likely spurred on by heavy advertising on a controversial tax referendum and get-out-the-vote efforts by the large number of gubernatorial primary candidates on the ballot. (There were seven Republicans and four Democrats vying for their parties’ nominations.)
“Historically, Maine voters have understood the connection between transportation investment, job creation and economic opportunity,” said MBTA President Deborah Dunlap Avasthi. “The big question in this election was whether rising political concerns about debt levels were going to affect that fundamental base of support that transportation traditionally holds.”
Money for roads
Of the $47.8 million transportation bond, a large amount will go to fund items in MaineDOT’s two-year highway capital program. The department estimates $24.8 million for highways will fund approximately 10 miles of highway reconstruction and more than 31 miles of paving across the state. Additionally, MaineDOT calculates the highway funding will support nearly 700 direct and indirect jobs.
“Getting this bond to the voters and passed was a bittersweet victory in many ways,” said Maria Fuentes, MBTA executive director. “We really should be funding 10 times as much reconstruction and pavement preservation. We have $3.3 billion in unmet transportation needs over the next 10 years, but short-term concerns about the economy and borrowing levels prevented any substantial effort to address those long-term needs.”
Money for rail
One of the most hotly debated provisions in the bond was the $7 million to help save 233 miles of rail line in Aroostook County. The rail line’s owner, Montreal Maine & Atlantic, has announced plans to abandon the line, and leaders throughout the state fear that losing the line would have a devastating impact on manufacturers in northern Maine. The bond also included a provision to transfer $7 million from the state’s rainy day fund (Budget Stabilization Fund), and redirected $4 million in rail money already approved in last November’s transportation bond toward the Aroostook rail purchase or capital improvements to the line.
The bond also included $5 million in funding for expansion of freight and passenger rail to greater Lewiston-Auburn. Of that $5 million, $2 million will be used to purchase a section of rail from Yarmouth to Auburn that is currently owned by the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad; another $3 million will realign the rail line to better aid economic growth in the region. Four million dollars of the bond funding will go towards rehabilitation of the state-owned Mountain Division line in the southwestern region of the state.
Money for ports
The bond sets aside $7 million for ports: $6.5 million for construction of a deepwater berth in Portland Harbor and $500,000 for the popular Small Harbor Improvement Program, a public-private matching fund that supports improvements to port facilities and access in Maine’s many working waterfront communities. The Portland deepwater berth project will construct a berth to accommodate ships up to 1,200 feet and is expected to grow the port’s cruise ship business. MaineDOT estimated it would support 180 direct and indirect jobs.
Other ‘jobs bonds’
The other jobs bonds supported by the MBTA board also passed. Question 2 passed with 59 percent of the vote. The “green jobs” bond, as its supporters tagged it, will invest $26.5 million to improve energy efficiency and advance offshore wind power. Question 5, a bond to invest $10 million for upgrades to Maine’s drinking and waste water facilities, passed with 55 percent of the vote.
The squeaker was Question 4, a measure to invest $23.7 million to stimulate economic development. The bond which contains money for research and development, the fishing, dairy, agriculture and forestry industries and redevelopment of the Brunswick Naval Air Station passed with a narrow margin. Just under 51 percent of voters supported the measure with 49 percent voting no.
With the primary election and bond referenda behind them, Avasthi said that the MBTA board and staff are focusing their efforts on the upcoming gubernatorial campaign. In addition to the Republican and Democratic candidates Paul LePage and Elizabeth Mitchell, there will three independents on the ballot: Eliot Cutler, Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott. The MBTA is preparing a “transportation policy paper” to help raise awareness among the five candidates of critical transportation issues and will be talking with the candidates in the months ahead.
“We want the next governor to hit the ground running when it comes to transportation issues that affect communities, jobs and economic development throughout the state,” said Avasthi. “We want to start the dialog now, well before the next governor walks into the Blaine House.”