Looking back at a year of challenges and achievements at the MBTA Annual Meeting
By Kathryn Buxton
The talk at the MBTA annual meeting on May 20 was all about jobs, bonds and gubernatorial candidates. With the state’s primary election less than three weeks away, members were closely watching the headlines and polls, particularly four “jobs bond” proposals that were on the ballot.
The bond issues – funding for transportation, “green” jobs, economic development and water quality – all have the potential to help Maine’s economic recovery from the recession (Note: All four jobs bonds, including the transportation bond, were passed by Maine voters on June 8). And with no less than 11 candidates (seven Republicans and four Democrats) on the primary ballot, the bets were on for who was going to win and who would make the best candidates for the transportation industry.
There was an MBTA election as well, and Tom Martin, who had served as MBTA president for the past year, announced that Deborah Dunlap Avasthi was the group’s newly elected leader. But not before he talked about his past year as president and all that MBTA had achieved.
“This past year has been just a rocket for me,” Martin told the crowd of nearly 200 members and friends at the Augusta Civic Center. He introduced several notables in the crowd: Maine Turnpike Executive Director Paul Violette; MaineDOT Commissioner David Cole; Sandy Blitz, chair of the newly formed Northern Border Commission; and former MaineDOT Commissioner John Melrose, MBTA’s senior policy advisor and principal of Maine Tomorrow (Molly Melrose, his wife and partner in Maine Tomorrow, was also there).
In his comments, Martin looked back on a difficult and challenging time for the transportation industry during which early hopes the legislature would support an increase in the gas tax and address other long-term transportation funding issues failed to materalize. “I firmly believe that by fully funding transportation in Maine, we would see major economic gains for everyone in the state, but it was hard for legislators to support [a gas tax increase and other funding measures], given the environment during the recession,” said Martin.
The outgoing MBTA president went on to encourage MBTA members to get out the vote during the upcoming primary election for the “jobs bond” package crafted by the Maine Legislature, particularly Question 3, the transportation bond that included $24.8 million for highway projects, $7 million for Maine ports and $16 million for rail transportation.
“We need to ensure Question 3 gets passed,” said Martin. “It will create and sustain jobs for Maine, and that’s something we need a lot of this year.” (Question 3 did pass on June 8, with a 58 percent majority.)
Senator Kevin Raye (R-Washington County), senate minority leader, took the opportunity to laud efforts to carve out a bipartisan transportation bond package for the state. “We were struggling mightily with loss of state revenues and the recession. But I’m very pleased we were able to come together on the jobs bond package that will steer funds so badly needed to transportation with money for roads, ports and rail.”
Raye pledged to work with the MBTA in the coming year to address long-term transportation needs. He also praised the MBTA and its executive director, Maria Fuentes, for their knowledge and leadership on the issue.
While the immediacy of the coming election necessary placed the bond package and Question 3 at center stage, Martin also recognized the organization’s other significant achievements for 2009-2010 including: passage of a $71.25 million transportation bond issue in November 2009 (Question 6); launch of MBTA’s first ever “Worst Road in Maine” contest; and the ongoing FixMaineRoads.org social media campaign.
He also thanked his family (his children Kaitlyn and Connor were in the audience), the MBTA board of directors for their support and singled out MBTA Past President Greg Dore for encouraging him to join the organization and become an advocate for better transportation in Maine.
“I am especially thankful to Greg Dore, my mentor and great friend. He told me I would love this group – and I have,” said Martin.
Then, Martin introduced MBTA’s new president, Deborah Dunlap Avasthi. Avasthi is the daughter and granddaughter of two previous MBTA presidents (her grandfather Malcolm Dunlap led the organization in 1957 and her father Steve Dunlap was president for two terms from 1977 to 1978). Avasthi found more similarities than differences with the issues faced by the two Dunlaps that preceded her in the role as the lead advocate for safe, efficient transportation in Maine.
“Really, the challenges that we face are no different than those faced by my grandfather and father,” Avasthi told the crowd in her first official speech as MBTA president. “Whether to bond or pay as you go. . . and safety.”
She recounted one of her father’s favorite phrases of the day “Good roads mean good business” and went on to talk about MBTA priorities for the coming year: to identify more funding for the state’s capital maintenance programs that have been severely underfunded over the past decade; to focus on research as outlined in the MBTA’s long-term strategic plan; and to continue the MBTA mission of public awareness and education regarding the importance of investment in roads, rails, ports and aviation.
“We have to refine our message – and repeat our message,” said Avasthi. She also said in the coming year, MBTA plans to push for passage of a federal bill permanently supporting higher truck weight limits on Maine’s interstate system, for investment in Maine’s three deepwater ports and for rescue of service on Aroostook County’s freight rail corridor.
Finally, she called for members to reach out to local and elected officials and ask them “to dig in and make a choice for Maine” and most importantly to vote.
“Together, we can make a difference,” Avasthi said.