Measure once, think again
How we measure success is a measure of our achievements
By Debora Dunlap Avasthi, MBTA President
The old saw, “measure twice and cut once,” works well, but only if everyone agrees on a single system of measuring. I’ve been thinking about measuring lately, because, as this is my last column, I have been taking measure of all MBTA has achieved during the past year (more on that later in this column). I’ve also been thinking about how future generations will look back at this time, when Maine faced one of its greatest transportation challenges. Our roads and bridges are at risk, and we have little prospect in these difficult economic times to make measurable progress to fix them.
MaineDOT’s new Capital Work Plan released this spring is an example of just that. The plan has been well received by many because it works to redefine our capital goals based on our immediate funding capabilities. The MBTA testified on the MaineDOT budget earlier this spring, and we understand the financial realities.
It appears that MaineDOT has had to change its yardstick which has resulted in reducing its capital needs by half. That is part of continuing pressures on the department to make due with less. During the last administration, MaineDOT redefined the life expectancy of our bridges, adding 10 years beyond that used by Federal Highway Administration or the Maine Turnpike Authority. Now, there is the request by MaineDOT to redefine capital investment, cutting it from 10 years to just five and redefining “skinny mix paving” as “light capital pavement.”
When future generations look back, they will see thousands of highway miles that have been not yet built to modern standards and are in need of redesign and reconstruction. Many of the roads that are in need of repair are old, narrow highways – minor collectors – without proper drainage or shoulders. They grow worse every winter when the cycle of freezing and thawing opens up bigger and bigger cracks, creating, in some cases, monster potholes. Future generations also will see that we have no clear plan to do anything about these bad roads and potholes, and in fact, may see our investment in capital highway and bridge infrastructure decreased by a whopping $200 million in the 2012-2013 budget cycle.
MaineDOT’s crisis deepening
As MaineDOT’s ongoing fiscal crisis deepens, the agency is attempting to do the best it can with the resources available to it. That is nothing new. During the past two administrations, it has increased efficiency in almost every aspect of its operations. It has reduced its staff; introduced the practice of design-build to speed project delivery and reduce costs; and most recently introduced a new system of prioritization that takes a clear-headed look at funding resources and levels of service when planning capital investments. Still, by changing the yardstick – how we measure progress in caring for our transportation system – we are masking the greater problem. By re-classifying maintenance surface paving or “skinny mix” as “light capital paving;” by extending the life-span of our aging bridges and by minimizing the need of our network of crumbling collector highways, we are putting a Band-Aid on a super-sized problem.
Maine voters want an honest representation of the state’s needs and obligations and have become aware of many instances where past administrations have failed to address key funding problems including unfunded pension liabilities and unpaid hospital bills. Maine is not alone in these issues and the phrase “kicking the can down the road” has become a common description across the country. I just worry that there won’t be any good roads in the future that even a can could roll down.
The Maine Legislature soon will be wrapping up its session, and worrisome issues still remain to be resolved: whether or not to eliminate motor fuel tax indexing and whether to send a transportation bond to the voters. Already, for the first time in three biennia, there is no GARVEE bond to use in the next two years for capital projects. Moreover, while there have been considerable efforts to trim transportation spending, there have been no substantial efforts to look ahead to how Maine can address its transportation needs in the future.
Send bond to voters
A first step would be to send a transportation bond to the voters. As MaineDOT acknowledged in its recent work plan, construction pricing is very positive. I urge all of our members to contact their legislators and support a transportation bond. The time is right. The work needs to be done, and the fiscally conservative way to do it is when prices are at rock bottom. Furthermore, we have many long-term investments to make that will benefit Mainers for generations to come – a strong argument for prudent borrowing if there ever was one.
Investing in our transportation system will support job creation, encourage business investment, increase efficiency and improve safety for everyone in Maine. Now, that is how we should be measuring success!
Finally, I would like to express my gratitude to both my co-workers at Willis and to my family – Evan, Elizabeth, and especially my husband Varun – for their understanding, patience and support during the past year. I also want to offer my thanks to the MBTA board and staff for making this job so rewarding. MBTA is honored to have many dedicated members and to have our organization led by a dedicated and experienced staff. While this year has been marked by its share of challenges, we also have experienced a good measure of success. From voter passage of a $47.8 million transportation bond (Question 6) in June to conclusion of our first annual Worst Road in Maine contest, to successful fundraising efforts for the MBTA Infrastructure and Educational Foundation funds, to a terrific Membership Campaign, I am proud to say that, together, we have accomplished a great deal – by any measure.