We are taking enormous risks.
By underfunding transportation infrastructure, we are risking connectivity for our businesses and the safety of our citizens. By Deborah Dunlap Avasthi
Will Maine keep on trucking?
Advocates worry that Congress will not act quickly enough to keep big trucks
on Maine’s big roads.
By Douglas Rooks
The employer blues.
The recession and stagnant transportation funding is putting pressure on construction industry employers.
By Kathryn Buxton
Hitting the ground running.
With Question 3, the transportation bond, passed by voters, transportation leaders look ahead to November elections.
Surface Transportation Board to rule on Abandonment.
Federal agency also mediates talks about endangered freight line. By Kathryn Buxton
‘Worst Road in Maine.’
Tale of woe and $1,000 repair bill wins Route 219 in Turner top honors in “Worst Road in Maine” contest.
Annual reporting. Deborah Dunlap Avasthi takes up reins at MBTA Annual Meeting.
Recent New Brunswick highway investments were a hot topic at the Washington County Meeting.
Winds of opportunity.
CCB, Inc., finds strength through diversification. By Kathryn Buxton
Short-term success, long-term choices. By David Bernhardt, P.E. and Ken Sweeney, P.E.
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!
Will Maine keep on trucking?
Advocates worry that Congress will not act before the truck weight pilot expires in December
By Douglas Rooks
When Brian Bouchard decided to do an experiment, running trucks along I-95 and parallel two-lane roads from Hampden to Houlton, the results surprised even him.
The president and CEO of H.O. Bouchard in Hampden was trying to create some real-time data concerning the one-year pilot project that allows 100,000-pound, six-axle trucks to operate throughout Maine and Vermont’s interstate systems. It expires in December unless Congress renews it. The contrasts for the 120-mile trip were striking.
The truck using local roads and state highways passed 86 pedestrian crosswalks, nine school crossings, four railroad crossings and four hospitals. It also encountered 644 oncoming vehicles. The totals for the truck on the interstate were zeros across the board.
From the driving perspective, the comparisons were equally dramatic. The driver on the local route shifted 192 times and braked 68 times, while the interstate driver shifted three times and braked just once. The interstate trip – timed at two hours and five minutes – was also 50 minutes shorter, saving 10 gallons of diesel fuel, reducing wear and tear on the big rig and stress and fatigue for the driver.
When the U.S. Congress authorized the one-year pilot exempting Maine interstates from the 80,000-pound national limit last December 16, adopting an appropriations amendment by Senator Susan Collins, these were just the kind of results for which Maine advocates of the change were hoping.
“The improvement in safety and efficiency is just overwhelming,” said Bouchard, an MBTA board member who is also a past president of the Maine Motor Transport Association.
His comments are echoed by other industry observers.
Pat Sirois, director of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative for the Maine Forest Products Council, said that the higher weight limit has been a boon for the logging industry. “We’re thrilled across the board,” he said. “This is exactly the right way to move wood products around Maine.”
While most people envision big logging trucks plying remote areas on their way to mills, interstates are also vital to the efficiency of the industry. “These are major haul routes, and most of the finished products from Maine sawmills and specialty mills go out-of-state along the interstates,” he said. “If you can make three trips to the mill a day instead of two, that’s a huge savings.”
Productivity improvements such as those allowed by the pilot project are not easy to find, he said. “Everything we can do to make transportation more affordable makes the industry more viable.”
The Forest Products Council has also been soliciting comments from drivers and the public about the pilot. “What is really striking is the relief from not having to face oncoming traffic,” Sirois said. “That is a really big hazard for drivers, and a big source of driver fatigue.”
When it comes to weight limits, Maine has long been a “doughnut hole” – its neighbors Canada, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New York all have higher limits, most of them grandfathered in the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 that created the interstate highway system. Maine didn’t pass its 100,000-pound limit for six-axles on state roads until later. In 1994, the state was notified by the Federal Highway Administration that such rigs were not permitted on the interstate system except for the Maine Turnpike, which was built as a state road before the interstate system existed. Ever since, the congressional delegation has attempted to create parity for Maine, but without success – until the Collins amendment was adopted last year.
“I would challenge anyone who thinks we should return to the previous system to take a ride along any of the roads we can now bypass,” said Brian Parke, president and CEO of the Maine Motor Transport Association.
Before the pilot project, fuel tankers regularly plied Route 1 through Freeport, going right past L.L. Bean on their way up the coast. Others navigated local roads through South Portland from the Sprague terminal out to the Maine Turnpike, where they could legally travel, at least as far as Exit 113 in Augusta.
The scene was similar in Bangor, where logging trucks were a regular sight, heading through downtown crosswalks and traffic lights.
The results to date seem to bear out the findings of previous studies commissioned to show the benefits of allowing 100,000-pound trucks to use the interstates – the roads designed to the highest standards of safety and performance.
The six-axle rigs have become the preferred design for fuel oil, wood products and other heavy cargoes, Parke explained. By spreading the load more evenly, these rigs actually create less stress on pavement and bridges than an 80,000-pound, five-axle model.
A 2004 study by Wilbur Smith Associates found that over 90 percent of all freight in Maine moves by truck. It estimated that allowing full use of the interstate system would prevent three fatal crashes a year and would reduce annual bridge maintenance costs by $317,000. The study estimated the state would save between $1 million and $1.65 million in pavement rehabilitation costs and would realize another $356,000 in safety savings annually. Overall, Maine would save at least $2 million a year.
A current study by the American Transportation Research Institute along a test route between Augusta to Brewer found that trucks would realize daily fuel savings of 194 gallons, while reducing CO2 emissions by two metric tons. Trucks would see fuel economy gains of 14 to 21 percent, while reducing CO2 emissions by 6 percent.
Extension in the cards?
Given the numerous advantages, renewal of the weight limit exemption might seem like a no-brainer. But that’s not necessarily the case, according to Maine’s congressional offices and industry experts.
First, there’s the problem of getting Congress to act – by no means a sure thing. The preferred solution would be making the exemption permanent, but that won’t be possible until there’s a long-term reauthorization of the federal transportation program. Passage of the reauthorization isn’t expected before Congress adjourns for the year.
Representative Mike Michaud, who represents the 2nd District, is a member of the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee and its Highways and Transit Subcommittee and will be in a good position to advocate for the change when reauthorization occurs, a spokesman for the congressman said.
But the more immediate legislative vehicle probably will be a one-year renewal through the annual appropriations process, something Senator Collins, who serves on the Appropriations Committee, has already filed according to her communications director, Kevin Kelley.
A one-year extension, Kelley said, “will also give the U.S. Department of Transportation and MaineDOT more time to study the impact on safety, road durability, commerce and energy use.”
The Federal Highway Administration was supposed to file a report on the short-term impact of the change by June, but it has been delayed. “They’re now telling us it’ll be by the end of summer,” said Chip Getchell, MaineDOT’s director of asset services, who is following the issue.
The question about the federal report, Getchell said, is that it will likely examine only the impact of larger numbers of trucks on the interstate system, without examining the benefits of getting the same trucks off secondary roads. While MaineDOT is “awaiting the report with interest,” Getchell said, it will move quickly to file its own report if the full range of impacts isn’t covered. “Six months is not a lot of time,” he added. “We really need more time to do a definitive study.”
One specific concern of federal administrators has already been addressed, Getchell said. “They wanted us to take a look at the interstate bridges, and we did. These are our strongest bridges, and they were built to higher standards than some other states. We have a lot of comfort that they can carry these loads indefinitely.”
Renewal of the pilot project will face opposition, both from states where rail interests have traditionally opposed any weight limit increases, and national highway safety advocates who often take the same stance.
Advocates of the weight limit increase say that not everyone understands the complexities of the issue. In 2004, when MaineDOT sponsored public hearings, speakers overwhelmingly were in favor of the weight limit exemption – but among written comments, only 14 of 39 were favorable.
“Part of our challenge is to show how Maine is different,” said Maine Motor Transport’s Parke. “This is a rural state, highly dependent on truck transport, and our industries and deliveries make the six-axle rig the best choice for us.”
Brian Bouchard said that his company, which has 170 employees and 80 drivers, uses “98 percent six-axle combinations” among its 200 trailers. “That’s all we do,” he said.
Despite the obstacles, there’s a good chance Maine will be able to buy enough time to get the pilot program fully evaluated. One congressional office staffer said that “the delegation has always worked well together on this, both House and Senate and in both parties.”
”Our representatives are extremely engaged,” said Brian Parke. “They know how much is at stake.”
The employer blues
By Kathryn Buxton
When Tim Folster talks about the state of transportation funding in Maine and the impact it is having on Maine employers, he is brutally honest. “I don’t know what’s worse than a famine,” Folster said recently. “But this year is a famine, so I hate to see what next year will look like.”
Folster is justifiably concerned. As vice president of operations at Sargent Corporation, he is acutely aware of economic trends and their impact on Sargent’s business and employees. Now, as the region begins to emerge from the recession, the former Maine Better Transportation (MBTA) president and longtime board member fears a post-recession upturn in the construction industry will not come quickly – or strongly – enough. His company’s employment rolls currently stand at about 350, down from 400 before the recession hit. Still, Sargent has been able over the past two years to keep its core group of employees working – employees that the company has brought in and trained and are key to its efficiency – despite fewer jobs. But he doesn’t know how much longer that will last.
“Given market conditions, we may have to downsize, and that’s not something we want to do,” said Folster. “We think of these people as family.”
That the region is beginning its recovery from the recession is indisputable, according to James Haughey, chief economist with Reed Construction Data. Still, he said, employment in the construction industry in New England has a long way to go before it rebounds – maybe two or three years – and even then it likely will not reach the levels of the early and mid-2000s.
Furthermore, transportation investment is likely to remain a peripheral driver within the construction employment recovery, and some areas of New England will recover more slowly than others, according to Haughey.
“Rhode Island and Maine are not doing well,” said Haughey. He said the bright spot in the region’s economy is the Greater Boston area where “they still make products – software, health care, bio tech, technology. That recovery is not because of money coming from their gas tax.”
There is a chicken-and-egg-like component to the recovery story. To grow an economy and have the systems to support emerging industries, said Haughey, “you need to put your money up front and invest in infrastructure. That is important. Maine is a big state with only one big road,” said Haughey.
Folster agrees. Good roads and bridges and good connectivity to ports and rail attract new business to the state and, in turn, boost employment in all sectors. Folster is quick to point out that in a typical year transportation construction is a limited part of Sargent’s work. “People say this is the sand-and-gravel business being greedy, but it’s not. Better roads and bridges are just as good for the commercial side of the business because they bring new business to Maine.”
Folster sees the state’s lack of commitment to improving its roads and bridges as a key driver in Maine’s slow recovery. And he can attest first hand to the costs bad roads and failing bridges have. He said that every day that Sargent Corporation’s fleet runs on old, narrow and poorly maintained roads costs the company money in increased vehicle maintenance, increased fuel costs and lost transport time.
“Investing in transportation is good business for everyone,” said Folster.
Bottom line impact
Maria Fuentes, executive director of MBTA, says the cost to businesses can be enormous when you break it down. She cites an October 2009 report, “Falling Behind: The condition and funding of Maine’s roads, highways and bridges,” by The Road Information Program (TRIP). That report calculated the cost of bad roads as $251 million annually – or an average of $250 per driver – in increased vehicle maintenance costs for accelerated vehicle depreciation, additional repair costs and increased fuel consumption and tire wear.
“That’s just the cost for a typical passenger vehicle. Imagine what that means for a business with a fleet of commercial or heavy industrial vehicles. The increased cost is enormous and has a tremendous impact on the bottom line. That is certain to affect a company’s growth and ability to hire and retain good employees,” said Fuentes.
Fuentes said to make a lasting and profound impact on business and employment growth, the state has to make transportation investment a priority and find a way to fund those investments. The TRIP report said that to address Maine’s road and bridge needs – and reduce the drag that bad roads have on the economy – the state must invest $3.3 billion over the next 10 years.
Some employers have seen a brighter side to the downturn. Doug Hermann, president of Wyman & Simpson, a bridge contractor, reported that his firm has had a more skilled pool of potential part-time employees to choose from, as the 2010 construction season has geared up. Hermann, MBTA 2nd vice president, said his firm retains a core group of 50 employees year round, but hires additional laborers during the good weather months when his business is at its peak.
The quality of that occasional labor pool has improved because of the economy, said Hermann. “There’s a lot of good help out there right now,” he said.
The downside has been not being able to keep those workers on for more than a week or two. Wyman & Simpson has seen its bridge business fall off this year, as federal stimulus funding has dried up and MaineDOT has had to cope with continued underfunding of its road and bridge programs. The firm also does heavy construction for commercial firms, including Florida Power & Light and Central Maine Power. But commercial jobs have been virtually non-existent and competition for what jobs there have been has been fierce. Hermann said he has watched as a lot of promising new employees moved on, because there isn’t the volume of work coming in to grow his core workforce.
“It would be our preference to keep these people on, but unfortunately we’re doing all we can to keep our regular crews busy,” said Hermann. “Sometimes we’re just finding them stuff to do.”
How long Hermann thinks the company can sustain those core employees – working on community service projects and maintaining company vehicles and property – is another question. “There’s no overtime,” said Hermann. “It’s just 40 hours a week and sometimes just 32. We’re taking it on the chin this year.”
Economist Haughey sees the lack of consistent transportation funding taking a toll on the region’s skilled workforce. He said that a majority of the skilled workers – from equipment operators to job superintendents to engineers planning transportation projects – are aging and the industry isn’t able to attract and retain the new workers that will take their place as workers retire from the workforce. He said that while construction wages are very good, the lack of consistent employment opportunities often drives newer workers out of the industry and into lower paying jobs that offer more consistent employment.
MBTA’s Fuentes concurs. “Ask any of our construction industry members, and they will tell you that you need to be constantly building your work force,” said Fuentes. “It takes time and experience and steady opportunity to build a skilled crew. One of those day laborers you hire this year is bound to be a future project supervisor. It’s how construction businesses grow and adapt with young new talent.”
Getting the big picture
The TRIP report, issued last fall when there was still hope Congress and state governments would step up with a second round of stimulus funding, saw further investment in transportation infrastructure as a good short-term job creator and essential to Maine’s long-term economic health.
According to the report: “As Maine looks to rebound from the current economic downturn, the improvement of the state’s transportation system could play an important role in improving Maine’s economic well being by providing critically needed jobs in the short term and by improving the productivity and competitiveness of the state’s businesses in the long term.”
Those hopes for further stimulus investments have since given way to political realities and concerns about federal and state debt levels.
Economist Haughey sees a need to shift our view of how we fund transportation improvements in the future. He cites states including Texas, California and Indiana that have turned to user fees and privately funded toll roads to address persistent underfunding of transportation.
MBTA’s Fuentes agrees, though she believes that in a rural state like Maine, tolls and private funding may only be one element in the equation. “We need $3.3 billion over the next decade just to keep up with the system that we have and the status quo isn’t going to get us there,” said Fuentes. “We need to be thinking creatively and long-term.”
Sargent’s Folster believes change needs to come from the top, although he is pessimistic when he looks at the field of gubernatorial candidates. He worries that none of the candidates appear to grasp the critical role transportation plays in shaping Maine’s economic future. He’s weary of one party pitting its views against the other and said that “the Republican-Democratic mindset” prevents state leaders from seeing the big picture.
“We need a business person in the governor’s office who understands how bad roads cost us all in lost opportunity and lost jobs,” said Folster.
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.”
Surface Transportation Board to rule on abandonment
Trackage vs. haulage rights on rail that connects with 233-mile section of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic track to be abandoned are at issue in proposed state purchase
By Kathryn Buxton
The fate of a 233-mile section of northern Maine rail line hangs in the balance, as Aroostook County employers, rail advocates and the state wait for the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to rule on Montreal Maine & Atlantic’s (MMA) proposed abandonment on the line.
The board held a hearing in Aroostook County on July 7th where they heard from the public, MMA and the state about the line, its operation and its importance to area businesses. On July 13th in Philadelphia, the board mediated negotiations between MaineDOT and MMA about a possible purchase of the line. Those talks have stalled as the two parties continue to disagree on two issues. The first is whether or not the state’s future rail operator will receive trackage rights over key sections of MMA track. The second is the rate MMA will charge the state and its operator for those trackage rights.
Trackage rights would enable any operator that contracts with the state to operate the line to carry freight uninterrupted over sections of track still owned by MMA and connect with other rail lines in Van Buren, Brownville Junction and Northern Maine Junction. MMA prefers to grant only haulage rights over the section of rail it plans to retain. That would mean that the operator hired by the state would have to hand off freight to MMA at the terminal points on the 233-mile section of rail.
“We left the mediation with that issue still out on the table,” said Nathan Moulton, director of MaineDOT’s rail program, speaking about the July 13 talks in Philadelphia. Moulton and Commissioner David Cole have been the state’s representatives in the rail negotiations with MMA, and he said he expects the STB to hand down a decision on the abandonment soon. MaineDOT has held fast to its position that it must have trackage rights at reasonable market rates and that without those, the future viability of the line as a state-owned venture would be at risk.
“We only have one chance to do this right,” said Moulton who added that trackage rights would enhance the viability of the line for the state and its operator and protect the state if MMA or any future owner of the connecting rail lines goes bankrupt.
“This is the only way, and we will walk if we can’t come to an agreement.”
Moulton said he and Commissioner Cole have conferred with members of the task force, appointed by Governor John Baldacci to oversee the state’s negotiation and purchase of the line, and they have unanimously backed MaineDOT’s position.
What’s at stake
Denis Berube, director of planning and transportation services at the Northern Maine Development Commission (NMDC), has been followiing the STB public hearings and related events closely and talking with shippers that would be affected by the abandonment. He said he has canvassed the shippers and determined that the long-term viability of approximately 760 jobs in the region’s forest products and agriculture industries are at risk. Berube said NMDC’s economic model indicates another 966 indirect jobs could be lost in the long term if the line were abandoned.
There are approximately two dozen shippers that rely on the line, including Irving Woodlands LLC, Portage Wood Products, McCain Foods, Louisiana Pacific, Maine Potato Growers, Fraser Paper and Huber Engineered Woods. Those businesses would be forced to find other means to transport their products. In most cases, the alternative would be to ship by truck. For some cargo, that is a more costly method than rail, primarily because of higher fuel and operating costs.
“One of the local shippers, who employs over 100 people, estimates that it would add $1 million to $1.5 million in extra transportation costs to their overhead annually if they were to lose rail service,” said Berube. “That’s a lot of money for anybody in these times. In a tough economy like today’s, corporate headquarters naturally look at the most expensive elements of their operations when it comes time to make cuts and shut down plants that cost more to operate. Having that extra transportation overhead makes one that much more vulnerable.”
Conversely, Berube said that the state’s efforts to obtain trackage rights, if successful, possibly would have significant positive benefits for area shippers. Mostly they would be able to streamline shipments and possibly shorten transit times.
Many of the affected shippers attended the STB’s public hearing on July 7th in Presque Isle. They were part of an overflow crowd, many of whom implored the STB to not allow MMA to abandon the line. For its part, MMA has maintained that even with so many shippers using the line, it is losing between $4 million to $5 million annually and that those losses are not sustainable.
MMA has suggested options for companies that use the rails if the lines are abandoned, such as shipping by truck or through transloading – using several types of transportation to get the product to its destination.
MaineDOT Commissioner David Cole testified on behalf of the state at that hearing and reiterated his department’s commitment to purchasing the tracks and leasing them to a rail operator that would keep northern Maine’s freight moving. Cole told the board, if the 21 businesses currently shipping by rail were forced to ship by truck, the increase in operating costs would make them less competitive in regional and national markets. He also spoke about concerns MaineDOT has regarding increased truck traffic on roads. According to an environmental analysis performed by the state, Cole said more than 70,000 trucks would be added to Maine roads if companies were forced to abandon rail cars. Cole said the state will still attempt to acquire the lines and and believes the lines can be operated profitably.
During the hearing MMA officials said to continue service or make the necessary repairs to keep the tracks viable, would cost between $18 million and $19 million most of which would be used to upgrade the tracks. They said that insufficient maintenance over the years by MMA’s predecessor has contributed to the company’s financial difficulties.
Two offers on table
The state has made two offers to MMA for the purchase of the line. One is a pro forma $18 million offer made on July 19 that includes purchase of the line with trackage rights over the track MMA intends to retain. Called an offer of financial assistance (OFA), the timing was originally intended to come after the STB ruled on the abandonment, but that ruling has been delayed due to the extended negotiations between MaineDOT and MMA.
The second offer, that is part of the negotiations, includes trackage rights and could be accepted by MMA before the STB delivers its ruling. MMA has stated publicly that the value of the land and tracks is closer to $27 million. For now, though, it looks like there is an impasse with both the state and MMA holding their ground.
Funding for the purchase and track upgrades would come from a variety of sources. The transportation bond passed by voters in June included $7 million. The state currently is working with NMDC and consultant HNTB Corp. to develop a grant application for a second round of TIGER grant funding (Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery) from the federal government for capital improvements to the rail lines. Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) also has put in a $3 million appropriations request for track upgrades.
Berube says that the failure of the negotiations would have long-lasting ramifications for the state. “We’re at a critical place. If we lose these tracks, a huge portion of Northern Maine’s current and potential economic strength will fade away,” said Berube.
Woman’s $1,000 woes win ‘Worst Road in Maine’ contest
Statewide contest draws entries from all corners; seven other roads singled out as among Maine’s worst
In the end, it was Martha Jordan’s frustration and dangerous encounter with a particularly bad pothole that got the attention of judges and won her entry – Route 219 from Turner to Leeds – the dubious title of “Worst Road in Maine.” Jordan’s photos and her story of a bent rim, busted tire, lost wheel bearing and $1,000 repair bill comprised one of many entries from all corners of state.
“Martha’s experience may seem extreme, but it is a lot more common that most might imagine,” said Maine Better Transportation Association Executive Director Maria Fuentes. “A recent study shows that the average Mainer pays $250 a year in added vehicle maintenance costs due to bad roads, but the truth is there is a greater cost.”
Jordan and her husband Roland won the top prize in the contest – a $250 gift certificate for car repair. Mary Taylor Bunker of Swanville won second prize for her entry, Route 141 in Swanville, a road she described as plagued with cracked, spider-webbed pavement, a bad shoulder and one very dangerous intersection. John Mancini won third prize for his photos of River Road, a road he has traveled for more than 30 years and seen deteriorate and grow more dangerous every year. Runners up – roads in Orono, Hudson, Lewiston, Washington and Fort Kent – were also chosen from among the entries.
“There are a lot of roads in Maine that are badly in need of reconstruction or repair. The truth is, any one of these eight roads could have been the ‘Worst road in Maine,’ but Martha’s story and photos really speak to the frustration and financial hardship that bad roads cause every day on the way to work or taking the kids to school,” said Fuentes.
Fix Maine Roads, and the “Worst Road in Maine” contest are part of a public awareness campaign by the Maine Better Transportation Association. Maine has some of the worst roads in New England. Currently, 26 percent of Maine’s federal-aid highways have poor pavement, according to an analysis of recent data from the Federal Highway Administration. And Maine’s roads have been declining for more than a decade. In the mid-1990s, only 5 percent of the state’s highways were ranked “poor.”
For more information about the winning/worst roads
and MBTA’s advocacy efforts to promote safer, more efficient transportation in Maine, visit FixMaineRoads.org or www.mbtaonline.org
‘Worst Road in Maine’ contest winners
1ST PRIZE: Route 219 in Turner, nominated by Martha and Roland Jordan
2ND PRIZE: Route 141 in Swanville, nominated by Delbert and Mary Taylor Bunker
3RD PRIZE: River Road in Windham, nominated by John Mancini
RUNNER UP: College Street in Lewiston, nominated by Paul Beaudette
RUNNER UP: Forest Avenue in Orono, nominated by Peggy Leonard Markson
RUNNER UP: Route 43 from Hudson to Old Town, nominated by Faith Pineo
RUNNER UP: Route 220 from Washington to Thorndike, nominated by Laura Pepler Jade
RUNNER UP: Route 161, west of Fort Kent, nominated by Steve Rusnack
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.
New Brunswick capital investment spree inspires awe at Washington County meeting
With just nine days to go before he retired, Doug Johnson showed he knew how to wow a crowd. The assistant deputy minister at the New Brunswick Department of Transportation (NBDOT) talked about a transportation spending spree undertaken by the NBDOT over the past 20 years.
“In the late 1980s, there was very strong support from our government for our highway system. There was the understanding that we needed to upgrade and expand our arterial trade networks,” Johnson told the crowd of more than 60 MBTA members and friends at the June 17 Washington County meeting at the Eastport Chowder House.
And expand they did. Now, more than 20 years later, the province has increased its network of four-lane highway eight-fold from 94.6 kilometers to 798.3 kilometers and hundreds more kilometers are soon to break ground or are in the planning stage. Billions of dollars have been invested by the federal government in partnership with private investors and businesses.
As the evening progressed, Johnson talked about the decade of expansion and reconstruction achieved entirely thanks to a strong national transportation policy and the government’s commitment to public-private partnerships (P3). As examples, he mentioned the completion of 505 kilometers of the Trans Canada Highway from Edmonton to Moncton, the 12 kilometers of four-lane highway connecting with I-95 in Houlton, the major investment in “twinning” Canada’s Route 1 where it crosses the border at St. Stephen-Calais to the Route 1 Atlantic Gateway Project, a P3 project that involves 39 interchanges, 31 road grade separations, seven railway grade separations and 19 bridges.
Johnson spoke of investments not in millions of dollars, but billions. And he praised NBDOT’s private partners – finance companies and construction firms – for their creativity and commitment to financing and building the new highways and bridges in ways that will save New Brunswick taxpayers millions of dollars every year. The P3 contracts all came with 30-year maintenance commitments, as well.
The result has been reduced highway deaths and injuries and significant reductions in operating costs for commercial shippers. “We’ve gone from having the worst highways in Canada to having the best,” said Johnson.
The next challenge for NBDOT has been developing a system for managing this audacious new transportation system and all of the additional miles of modern four-lane highway. For many transportation authorities with limited budgets, the investment approach usually begins with the “worst comes first” strategy, but Johnson described how NBDOT worked with a Fredericton-based software developer to design a transportation asset management system to strategically plan investments that would ensure a sufficient level of service throughout the province.
“We decide where to invest based on the asset life cycle rather than base our decisions on the ‘worst comes first’ business model,” said Johnson. The new approach is called “investment-minded thinking” and is projected to save New Brunswick taxpayers $72 million annually – and $1.4 billion over the 20-year planning cycle.
Johnson’s presentation, one of the last he gave in his role as NBDOT deputy, also gave MBTA members a glimpse of the iconoclastic thinking that has made NBDOT’s massive transportation investment possible. He issued a rallying cry to “Tear down the border” between Canada and the U.S. to open up trade and transportation – a move he said would greatly benefit both country’s economies. Johnson also congratulated Maine on its efforts to preserve operations on the soon-to-be-abandoned 233-mile Montreal Maine & Atlantic rail line in Aroostook County.
“We’re tracking that issue very closely,” Johnson said. “We’re very pleased that Maine is so committed to improving and sustaining that railway. We’re all about trying to sustain what little rail we still have on our side of the border.”
Deborah Dunlap Avasthi, the MBTA’s newly elected president, was the evening’s emcee and introduced several notable guests in the audience, including two state legislators: Senate minority leader Kevin Raye (R-Washington County); Representative Howard McFadden (R-Dennysville)). The crowd also included three Maine Transportation Achievement Award recipients (Dick Martin, Walt Parady and Don Raye); four MBTA past presidents (Martin, Tim Folster, Don Raye and Lauren Corey) and the new manager for the City of Eastport (Jonathan Southern). MBTA board member Skip Rogers, Eastport Port Authority Director Chris Gardner and Maine Port Authority Executive Director John Henshaw addressed the MBTA board at the afternoon meeting.
The gathering in Eastport was the first chance for MBTA members to gather and talk about the outcome of the June 8 election, which included passage of the $47.8 million transportation bond and a slew of other jobs bonds that the MBTA board had supported. “We’re thrilled that the transportation bond passed,” said Avasthi. She added that the board now was focused on the upcoming gubernatorial campaign and influencing the candidates’ positions on transportation.
The evening concluded with the MBTA’s traditional 50-50 Raffle. Carrie Martin won the prize and half of the proceeds went to the MBTA Educational Foundation Scholarship Fund.
The annual Washington County Meeting is one of several regional forums on transportation and related topics sponsored by the MBTA. For more information about upcoming meetings, visit www.mbtaonline.org
Winds of opportunity
CCB, Inc. finds strength through diversification
By Kathryn Buxton
The announcement in mid-June that Westbrook construction company CCB, Inc., had won a contract to install a wind turbine for the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority signals the firm’s latest venture into the fast-growing wind energy market. The 120-foot turbine is the sixth wind project for the company during the past five years.
“Community wind” is just part of the company’s “green construction services” strategy, according to CCB President Beth Sturtevant and Director of Business Development Tom Donnelly. The market category also includes installation of patented energy conservation units for HID (high intensity discharge) lighting. The emphasis on green services is a relatively new niche for a company that has built its reputation as the go-to firm for a variety of other markets: pulp-and-paper, commercial, clean room construction and renovation, gas turbine construction and more.
CCB is also expanding their reach into building envelope restoration and structural concrete rehabilitation for airports and, possibly, bridges. As CCB President Beth Sturtevant describes it, the adaptive skill of CCB’s workforce has allowed the company to evolve and thrive in the changing New England economy – even during difficult times.
“Our crews are used to working in environments that require constant attention to safety, creative thinking and efficiency,” said Sturtevant. “Those skills are easily transferrable.”
The focus on workforce agility has served the company well, particularly during the past two years as the region has struggled to recover from the economic downturn. It has kept the company’s core workforce of 150 busy and the business competitive. Recent projects have included: a $6 million foundation project for the new Life Sciences Building at Dartmouth College; installation of a wind turbine at the Grand Hotel in Whitefield, New Hampshire; and the interior fit out of an entire floor at the Tip O’Neill Federal building in Boston. Currently, CCB is working on a new fish passage for the Shelburne Falls dam in Massachusetts and completing masonry restoration work at the Verso paper mill in Bucksport.
“We’re weathering this downturn very well,” said CCB Vice President of Finance Donald Raye. “We’re as strong as we have ever been in terms of capital and cash on hand. My feeling is we’re very well positioned for the recovery.”
Tom Donnelly, a 25-year veteran of construction and facilities management, joined CCB earlier this year and is leading the company’s expansion into the green construction services market. As he explains it, the markets CCB is pursuing are a result of the company’s strategic partnerships to install energy efficient HID lighting control systems for industrial and municipal clients and community wind developments. Other new markets include building envelope rehabilitation and historical renovation, both specialties Donnelly has been involved in throughout his career. Each of these disciplines requires a special skill set, skills which CCB has and can excel at.
“These markets aren’t easy,” said Donnelly. He added that community wind or large-scale historic renovation projects can take more than a year to cultivate from concept to project initiation and can take even longer when there is limited access to capital and debt financing. Still, there is demand, and the benefit for CCB’s customers can be significant. The community wind project on Cape Cod will save CCB’s client an estimated $60,000 a year – about 60 percent of the transit agency’s operating costs. The HID lighting control system offers potential savings of 20-25 percent of lighting energy costs annually – and in some cases will pay for itself in just 24 to 36 months.
And there is a market for this specialized “green” construction work. The recent announcement that CCB would be constructing the wind turbine on Cape Cod has generated interest from transit organizations from as far away as Texas and Nebraska.
“Projects like these can require a lot of handholding and a high quality skill set to bring the project to completion. Those are things we are very good at,” said Donnelly. “CCB self performs the majority of the work on these projects. We take pride in the quality of our workmanship, and we don’t farm it out to the lowest bid.”
The company has navigated challenging times before in its 65-year history. CCB, Inc. was founded in 1945 by Robert Dawson, Clifford Johnson and John Kibler – the original name was Consolidated Constructors & Builders. The new company had its headquarters in New York and a satellite operation in Portland, Maine. In 1963, when the original owners retired, Edward Milvaney, and Stanley Pawlowski bought the firm, closed the New York office and moved the headquarters to Portland.
Another turning point came in 1980, when Herbert E. Sargent, founder of the heavy construction firm H.E. Sargent in Stillwater, Maine, bought CCB. The company was in need of new leadership, and Sargent was just the person to take it on. Known for his business acumen, Sargent saw potential in the firm and under his leadership, the company became more financially stable, increased its bonding capacity and strengthened critical business functions, including project management, data processing, estimating and cost accounting.
The company made a key hiring decision about that same time. Beth Sturtevant, who had first worked for H.E. Sargent during her student days at UMaine Orono, joined CCB as a field accountant/engineer in 1982. Sturtevant became a project manager in 1985 and vice president of operations in 1993 when she and then CCB President Donald Starr purchased the company from Sargent.
Big on paper
The 1980s and 1990s were a time when CCB became adept at reading the New England market and developing its niche approach to industrial construction. By the late 1980s, the company had developed a name for itself in the paper industry and formed a special branch just to serve that market – Northeast Papermill Services, Inc. The new division provided “in-house capabilities” to Maine’s paper mills – industrial piping, millwright, rigging and maintenance services. Just three years later, the company broadened that “in-house capabilities” approach to work with other industrial clients in the region and changed its name to Northern Industrial & Papermill Services.
During the mid-1990s, the industrial landscape of Maine was beginning to change. Maine’s pulp and paper industry was facing intense market pressure from overseas competition. Don Starr, CCB’s president and majority owner at the time, recognized the ramifications changes in the paper industry held for the company.
Don Raye, who worked for Bancroft Contracting at the time – another firm with close ties to the paper industry – described the atmosphere as one where relationships between contractors and their paper industry clients were strong and the work flowed freely.
“It was a user-friendly environment,” said Raye, a former MBTA president (1985-1986) and Maine Transportation Achievement honoree who joined CCB as vice president for finance in 2002. Raye said that a steady stream of contracting work for the mills was something that firms like CCB and Bancroft could count on. He describes an almost symbiotic relationship between contractor and client where “there was an understanding. . . we took care of you and you took care of us.”
To his credit, said Raye, Starr saw the writing on the wall and began to diversify CCB’s client base. “CCB had a heavy investment in the paper industry, and Don saw the business had to change if it was going to survive in the open market,” said Raye.
A craft approach
Under Starr’s leadership, the company transitioned to a business model with a more diverse client base. CCB honed its focus on craftsmanship and customer service. The company is one of the few in Maine that employs union craftspeople. That is by choice, according to Sturtevant, who said that being a union shop encourages a high level of training and career commitments – factors that are a major contributor to the company’s efficiency and ability to compete with non-union contractors.
The focus on customer service has included establishing satellite offices near its client base that now reaches across New England to New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont. In 1996, the firm opened an Old Town office with a fabrication shop to better serve clients in Bangor and northern Maine. In the early and mid-2000s, CCB established an operations centers in Massachusetts. The Wilmington, Massachusetts, location includes a millwork shop that produces custom finishes for commercial customers throughout southern New England.
In 2005, Sturtevant and Raye purchased Starr’s majority stake in the company. Sturtevant is majority owner and the company is a certified women’s business enterprise (WBE). The business, according to Raye, has benefited from Sturtevant’s open management style.
“Beth believes in consensus and team building,” said Raye. He describes CCB as “family friendly and extremely open” – key in the company’s ability to maintain a quality workforce. He added that Sturtevant’s talent for operations and appreciation for the financial side of running a business have served the company well. Last year, she was named a “Woman to Watch” by MaineBiz magazine which praised her for doubling the company’s revenues, improving the company’s safety record and expanding into new markets.
Raye said that where many companies can often experience tensions between operations and finance – particularly in challenging economic times – Sturtevant’s comfort level and understanding of finance have served the company well. “We have a nice working relationship,” Raye said.
A key element in CCB’s business strategy has been to expand its pool of management expertise to streamline operations and increase efficiency. In 2008, Sean Ferguson joined the company as controller. A CPA by training, Ferguson is CCB’s information systems guru and has helped streamline operations and improve efficiency. The addition of Donnelly earlier this year has further strengthened the company’s ability to seek new business and service its customers better. That all points to a strong outlook for CCB.
“Bringing on new talent like Sean and Tom is how you get more efficient and break into different markets,” said Raye.
Short-term success, tough long-term choices
By David Bernhardt, P.E. - Director of Engineering and Operations, MaineDOT
and Kenneth L. Sweeney, P.E. - Chief Engineer, MaineDOT
August 1, 2010 marks the third anniversary of the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minnesota. The collapse claimed the lives of 13 people and injured more than 145. No one wanted to see a similar event here in Maine. Further, given Maine’s topography and waterways, a reliable bridge network is vital to the economy. Bridges connect communities throughout the state, and a single bridge that is posted or closed can effectively close an entire highway corridor, meaning lost productivity. For these reasons, Governor Baldacci acted immediately and issued an executive order requiring an analysis of Maine’s bridge programs.
The resulting report, “Keeping Bridges Safe”, was the product of hundreds of hours of work by a team of professional engineers from within and without MaineDOT with over 284 years of combined experience. The report concluded that while Maine had programs and processes in place to assure bridge safety, those programs and process were more of a “safety net” – not a sustainable solution. It found that, due to capital funding constraints, the state was falling behind in bridge preservation and replacement at an increasing rate. Here is an update on where Maine stands regarding its bridges, and the tough choices that lay ahead.
Inspection safety net
MaineDOT inspects all bridges in the state – nearly 3,700 – at a minimum of every 24 months. Of these bridges, MaineDOT has capital and maintenance responsibility for the1,982 bridges on public roads that are at least 20 feet long. The Minnesota collapse caused us to reexamine our inspection process. The average age of a bridge in Maine is 50 years, with many having been constructed in the first half of the 20th century. In 2007 when the report was prepared, MaineDOT estimated that 288 bridges would need to be rehabilitated or replaced in the next 10 years to avoid posting (limiting vehicle weights) or closure. Maine’s bridge-inspection process is being strengthened with renewed focus on scour, load ratings and documentation.
Capital funding boost
Perhaps more importantly, the Maine Legislature agreed with the report and recognized the need to address bridge capital funding. The governor’s bridge initiative provided an additional $40 million per year in capital bridge funding for four years through the use of TransCap revenue bonds funded through modest increases to some vehicle fees. When combined with other state, federal and bond resources, the additional funding has allowed us to devise a four-year bridge investment plan of about $110 million per year ($20 million less than the $130 million annual funding recommended by the Keeping Bridges Safe report).
We are now two years into the four-year investment and we are slightly ahead of our goals. The 2010-2011 Capital Work Plan funded improvements for 140 bridge projects across Maine. During the first two years, we have replaced 57 bridges. The funding provided is quickly yielding new and improved bridges, and the safety and economic benefits that come with them.
Tough choices ahead
As noted above, the additional capital bridge funding will last only two more years. Other funding sources appear scarce. State Highway Fund revenues that rely on fuel taxes and vehicle fees, thankfully, appear to have stabilized after declining through the recession, but at lower levels. Federal funding – traditionally only about $38 million per year – is extremely uncertain and the chances of substantial increases appear remote. Policymakers and voters properly scrutinize state bonding initiatives, which therefore cannot form the foundation of long-term, reliable funding plans.
Yet the need still exists. Large, expensive bridges like the Penobscot Narrows Bridge ($89 million) or the Portland-South Portland Veterans Memorial Bridge ($65 million) take a substantial bite out of the funding pie. Extraordinary bridge needs in Portsmouth and Kittery loom. Hundreds of other bridges across the state need attention.
Where does that leave us? The way we think about transportation investment in Maine is going to change. We must prioritize like never before. We must consider not only the condition of bridges, but their function and need. We increasingly will be confronted with wrenching choices. Sometimes these choices will pit localized interests and perceptions against broader regional and statewide needs. These are choices nobody wants to make. But given current funding levels, they simply must be made.
Efficiency initiatives and process improvements – like those that resulted in MaineDOT’s 10 percent workforce reduction in recent years – are always important. Ultimately, those measures can solve only a small part of the problem. The choices as a state and nation, though very difficult, are essentially quite simple. We must (a) prioritize and focus our high-cost efforts on higher-priority assets, (b) pay more or (c) some combination of the two. The proper combination is not a question for us here at MaineDOT. Our job is to provide the greatest customer benefit with what we are given and to quickly and responsibly convert funding into on-the-ground, tangible improvements. MaineDOT can do that.
Policymakers, and ultimately voters, determine what is appropriate – what we are willing and able to pay. In the meantime, MaineDOT will continue to do its job and prioritize more, which will require increasingly tough choices.