What’s on their minds?
Transportation Committee Co-Chair Representative Richard Cebra, and members Senator Bill Diamond and Senator Doug Thomas offer MBTA’s Maria Fuentes their thoughts about the proposed MaineDOT Work Plan, user fees, bridges and ‘The Worst Road in Maine.’
Maine Trails: The MaineDOT Work Plan was recently released, and the Department is programming to reconstruct 63 miles during the next biennium. With roughly 8,800 miles of state roads, how many miles should be reconstructed each year to avoid worsening conditions?
Rep. Cebra: I believe that Commissioner Bernhardt has developed a reasonable 10-year plan that prioritizes roads and uses maintenance surface treatment to keep together the worst roads.
Sen. Diamond: I am not an engineer, but I do know that 63 miles is unacceptable. That is not going to get us where we need to be. But we have to be leaders and go to the full legislature and acknowledge this is a problem we need to fix. We can’t just let the roads deteriorate more and more. We need to acknowledge the problem, and we need to get all the stakeholders together and figure out what a bond package should look like for highways and bridges. What is fair? How many federal funds are we at risk of leaving on the table if we don’t pass a highway bond package? All that money means jobs, it means improving the economy and it means fixing the roads for our citizens. For me, we can’t just stick our heads in the gravel.
We must understand the reality. If we do nothing this next biennium, things will only get worse. As things stand today, we are looking at a much smaller capital program than the last biennium. So we need to look at all the possible resources. If we get rid of indexing, let’s at least put it off one year until 2013, since we have already planned on having those funds. We have to be realistic and move forward; we can’t just say that for whatever ideological reason, we won’t fix our roads.
Sen. Thomas: We should be doing a lot more miles. The problem is where does the money come from? People are paying all the taxes they can afford to; that’s just the way it is. What we really need to do is to fix the economy. We have looked at it from the perspective that transportation isn’t getting a big enough piece of the pie. But we need more pies. Until we fix the economy, I don’t see how we will be able to do the things we need to do.
Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Will roads bring economic development? I tried to help towns and the economy with my secondary roads bill. When we involve towns, we can accomplish a lot because towns can fix roads cheaper. We should involve them more, as long as we don’t turn roads over to them – they don’t have the resources to handle more roads.
Maine Trails: The last few work plans have been partially funded by general obligation bonds and GARVEE bonds, but this work plan has neither. Do you support a transportation bond this session to make capital improvements to highways, bridges and other modes? What about a GARVEE bond for highways and bridges?
Rep. Cebra: It is too early to tell. The General Fund Budget and Highway Fund Budget have not yet been enacted – they are still in play. We really can’t determine whether there is a need to borrow money until the budgets have been completed, and we know where we are in terms of capital investments.
Sen. Diamond: I am sponsoring a General Obligation transportation bond bill (LD 894). I put it in early, and I knew all the politics that surround it, but I am still hopeful that reason will win out. I am also realistic enough to know that the most we can get is a small package but a small package with a lot of federal funding match allows us to do more than nothing. Budgets and bond packages always require a great deal of negotiations, and I am totally open to anything. What we can’t do is just say we are doing nothing. We have no choice – we will not be getting any General Fund money this year, notwithstanding that it is in Governor LePage’s proposed budget.
Sen. Thomas: No to both. A GARVEE bond is only getting an advance on monies we are getting anyway from the feds. We should only be using GARVEE for emergencies, like the Penobscot Narrows Bridge.
Maine Trails: Public investment in infrastructure has been a way to jump start the economy during difficult economic times in the past. Do you think that model still works today?
Rep. Cebra: That model works sometimes, but other times it doesn’t. Just look at ARRA – the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. The country spent billions of dollars and it was a complete failure. So the jury is still out on that.
Sen. Diamond: Yes, I do, and let me give you a small example. In last year’s bond issue, we got $4 million to begin laying rail on the Mountain Division between Westbrook and Fryeburg. Rehabbing the Mountain Division rail line would enable freight rail service for businesses that are clamoring for it. This was a first step toward that goal.
With the exception of the purchase of steel, it was all Maine companies that are doing the rail work. When Maine companies are working, it means Maine jobs are being created and sustained. That’s how bond packages for transportation work. No matter what amount we get in a potential bond, I am convinced it will help our economy.
Back to the rail example: Another $20 million is needed to complete the improvements and there are companies committed to moving freight along that line including wood pellets, asphalt, and other products. That is huge for the economy and that part of the state.
Sen. Thomas: Of course it does.
Maine Trails: Knowing we have to set priorities on where to spend our limited transportation dollars, where are the best places to spend those limited dollars?
Rep. Cebra: I support following the MaineDOT’s prioritization plan that prioritizes roads based on a variety of factors. We need to work on the most important roads first, and then work down the list. Times are hard and it is important to prioritize.
Sen. Thomas: We first have to make sure we don’t have any catastrophes in the wings, and I think the MaineDOT has done that – no bridge collapses. We have to look at safety issues first, and some of our roads are getting to the point that safety is a huge issue. After safety, we need to look at where we spend our money to grow our economy.
Maine Trails: Maine was recently ranked 12th worst in the nation for the condition of our bridges. Do you think finding a way to fix our bridges should be one of our priorities?
Rep. Cebra: Yes, of course it should be one of our priorities. What we need is to have a lot more General Fund participation in funding roads and bridges, just like most other states do. I heard recently that on average, other states have 17 percent of highway and bridge projects generated by general revenues. In Maine, that would add up to over $50 million per year.
Sen. Diamond: How can they not be? We do not want to see a disaster like we have seen in other states. Keeping bridges safe is a basic survival function of state government. Bridges are maybe even more important than roads because of the consequences if we don’t keep them safe.
And it doesn’t make good conservative financial sense to wait a year or two. We must understand the consequences – the longer we wait, the older the structures get, and the more expensive it is to fix them.
Sen. Thomas: First of all, I would want to know what the criteria of the study was. I was here when the state did the bridge study, and the list the state came up with had a lot of problems: some of the bridges on the list were too narrow, some were turnpike bridges which aren’t the responsibility of MaineDOT, there were private and railroad bridges on it that shouldn’t have been. In terms of prioritizing bridges, if we have a structurally sound bridge but it is too narrow, for instance, it should take a back seat. Bridge safety should be our first priority, but safety should be underlined.
Maine Trails: Now that the four-year TransCap Bridge Program bonds are used up, what is your plan to keep up the pace of bridge investments so we don’t stay at 12th worst in the nation?
Rep. Cebra: There is still $55 million left in the TransCap Bridge Fund, so we should definitely issue the last bond this year. Beyond that, we must prioritize state spending so more money is going into job creation through investment in roads and bridges, and less is going to other areas of state government that are draining – not enhancing – the economy.
Sen. Diamond: In theory, we should be spending more general fund money on transportation. In reality, it is very hard to do that when you have budget shortfalls. The folks on the Appropriations Committee hear from people who are suffering, and who lack the most basic needs – that is the reality of what legislators deal with. Getting General Fund dollars from this year’s budget is not realistic – we need to look elsewhere. Bonding is a realistic option we should consider.
What we need to do is have a long-range plan. Figure out what we need and then develop a plan, and that needs to include finding other resources – other ways of funding. It has to be negotiated so all parties involved feel a little uncomfortable – there’s nothing wrong with changing people’s minds, but that will take bold leadership.
Sen. Thomas: If we are 12th worst now, given all the money we have spent on bridges recently, then we have really switched priorities. We should be more creative when it comes to bridges - I think the “bridge in a backpack” technology shows some real potential. There are more ways to solve a problem than just pouring money into it. The bottom line is we need to use creative solutions to be sure that bridges are safe.
Maine Trails: If you could request the federal government to fund one transportation project, what project would that be?
Rep. Cebra: I would ask them to come up with the long-term maintenance funds needed for the three bridges connecting Kittery and Portsmouth.
Sen. Diamond: Completing the Mountain Division rail line. Even though some of it is in my district, most of it isn’t. It is in western Maine, and making that rail viable will create real jobs. There are manufacturing companies that are anxious to bring jobs here, including Tony Wood, who owns a wood pellets operation. Other companies are willing to come to the area strictly because of the promise of freight rail – that is their motivation because they need to ship their products by rail. This is all about freight and getting that line ready. There has only been $4 million put in since the state purchased the line years ago.
We need to fix the bed and upgrade the rail, and studies show that it can be done for $20 million. That makes the rail viable again. There are six or eight companies that will use it to haul gravel, cement, wood pellets – again those are companies that will hire Maine workers.
Sen. Thomas: The single most important thing the feds can do is to increase the weight limit on the interstate.
Maine Trails: We’ve seen some major increases in gas prices in recent weeks and months. Where do you see the price of gas in two years? How will that impact transportation planning?
Rep. Cebra: If the fuel cost gets up to $5, that will reduce revenues going into the Highway Fund because at that rate, people will definitely be driving less. This is one of our problems with the funding mechanism we have come to rely on. We really – as a state and as a country – need to find alternative funding for highways and bridges over the long-term.
Sen. Diamond: I think in two years it will be high. We will have some fluctuations back and forth, but it will continue creeping up. I expect in two years it will be higher than it is today. Of course, the problem is there is an incentive for fuel efficiency and, as good as that is, it means less money for the Highway Fund. So we go from crisis to crisis.
Sen. Thomas: I think we will see $5 by Labor Day. It will have a huge effect on our overall economy. It can’t be good.
Maine Trails: How would you improve the transportation relationships between Maine’s trading partners?
Rep. Cebra: The most important thing to do is ensure that the federal government raises the weight limit on Maine interstates to 100,000 pounds. The next thing would be to build a port in Searsport.
Maine Trails: The gas tax was originally designed as a direct user fee, but has lost a lot of its buying power in the past 30 years. Do you think user fees are a good way to fund transportation? If so, what kinds of user fees would you support?
Rep. Cebra: Yes, user fees are an important part of the puzzle, such as tolls on the Maine Turnpike. But we also need to have General Fund fees going into the Highway Fund, as well.
Sen. Diamond: Yes, users fees are effective and we have proven that with the turnpike and tolls, but I don’t have an answer to which user fee would fill in the gap that we are faced with. It is hard to keep raising the gas tax – ours is high in the region. We are as large geographically as the rest of New England, and it is not easy to get around. Anybody in rural Maine has to drive a lot and the price of gas is impacting them.
I congratulate the governor for submitting a budget that actually has General Fund money going to highways up front – moving General Fund money into highways can’t happen without the leadership of a governor.
Sen. Thomas: Yes, but user fees alone can’t solve everything. The Highway Fund should get a share of sales tax revenues. I hate tolls, because they are the most expensive taxes we can collect because it costs so much to collect them. You have to build the tollbooths, hire people to staff them and stop traffic to take pocket change from people. Electronic tolls are also expensive because of the equipment, the programming and the staffing requirements and when people stop, they are wasting fuel.
Maine Trails: Rail is seen as an effective way to move freight – and people.
Do you think Maine should be finding ways to increase investment in this mode of transportation? How?
Rep. Cebra: Maine should be finding ways to increase investment in rail transportation only in those cases where it has been previously proven that the service will be profitable and not a drain on state resources.
Sen. Diamond: Absolutely. The example I gave with the Mountain Division is one. The beauty of this is you can have a private company come in and operate it, but first we need to make sure that the rail is up and running. Once it is ready, we can then lease it to a private company. They can make the money off it, but they will also have the risk.
Sen. Thomas: If there is one transportation need in Maine, it is to improve our freight rail system because improving our freight rail system does more to improve our economy than almost anything else we can do. For folks who own trucks and think rail is competing, I disagree: if we improve the economy, there is more business for both rail and trucking.
Maine used to be one of the most prosperous states in the nation – we have a strong work ethic, wonderful natural resources, not the least of which is water – and water becomes more important every day. We should also build a cargo port on Sears Island. The best cure for rail transportation in Maine is to generate more volume for shippers but currently, we just don’t have the mass. That’s why Searsport is so important – a terminal on Sears Island increases rail traffic while also generating traffic for the port.
Maine Trails: What is your biggest priority for the 125th Legislature’s Transportation Committee?
Rep. Cebra: Ensuring that the $20 million in General Fund revenues get transferred to the Highway Fund, as proposed in the governor’s budget.
Sen. Diamond: Internally, I hope the committee has a real in-depth understanding of the Highway Fund budget, which I think they do, and then we need to use that knowledge to set some goals and directions working with the department for a few years out. There is a lot of talent on this committee, and I have been impressed with how energized committee members are with getting into the details of the budget. The committee is very engaged and we need to use their talent and knowledge, so that we plan out more than one year ahead.
Sen. Thomas: Finding a way to fix secondary roads. We have neglected those roads for so long – those are the state’s posted roads. They need to be fixed and we don’t need to make them into superhighways. But they need to be safe and smooth.
Maine Trails: We have an annual contest called “The Worst Road in Maine.” If you were entering this contest, which road would you choose to enter? Why is it so bad?
Rep. Cebra: Route 114 in Sebago. It is a mess and needs to be reconstructed. It is critical for our tourist economy and for the citizens who depend on that road to get to work, school, etc.
Sen. Diamond: The River Road in Windham. It is a major collector road with a lot of traffic and has been neglected for too long; people come down through the lakes region and it is a significant shortcut to Lewiston and Portland. It has lost its underpinning and is in terrible shape. Cars have rolled over, and there have been serious accidents on it. Fortunately, the current work plan has funding in it to rebuild the upper half and resurface the rest.
Sen. Thomas: Any road that wins that contest would have to be in the second district that has 95 percent of all the roads posted in this state. My entry would be Route 175 in Castine. It is a travesty because Maine Maritime Academy is a huge asset to this state – and look at the goat trail people have to drive on to get there. That probably does us the most harm economically because of how the world economy works now – that should be a huge draw for expanding the economy. MMA is performing cutting-edge energy research with tidal power; it is such a great engineering school – and the road leading up to it is a mess.