No way to run a transportation system
By Deborah Dunlap Avasthi
President, Maine Better Transportation
If you were tasked with figuring out how to run a transportation system, chances are you would not build it around crisis management.
You would build it knowing that crisis management is a worst-case situation, a place you prepare for, hoping not to go there. Moreover, if you discovered you were spending a significant amount of time in crisis management mode, you might think it would be time to review and update the plan. You would think.
I live in Durham. The recent detour for Route 136 was a major inconvenience for area residents and commuters. The road was closed after a section of highway skirting the Androscoggin River collapsed on September 2. The impact of the closure to individuals, businesses and neighbors due to the 10-mile detour was significant in both time and expense. I am very thankful for efforts by people and organizations such as the Benjamin family, Joyce Taylor and MaineDOT representatives, Durham and Auburn representatives, Shaw Bros. Construction, St. Laurent & Son, Inc., the utility companies and others who provided “emergency room” services to Route 136 and had it up and running as soon as was possible.
On a positive note, I believe many users now have a better appreciation of the importance of this major roadway, and perhaps our roads in general, as well. The story of Route 136 closure ranked No. 5 in the top 10 Sun Journal news stories in 2010, following the election of a new governor and the Oxford Casino vote.
While the Androscoggin River may have provoked this road collapse, we should recognize the value our roads provide and the need to ensure funds are available to maintain and repair our transportation infrastructure. Our funding sources have collapsed just like the riverbank, and we need to do more to shore up monies to support aging infrastructure throughout the state.
I’m sure many people in the Portsmouth/Kittery area feel the same way about Memorial Bridge. The bridge has been on Maine and New Hampshire’s critical list for repairs for some time now. The big question has been: Where will we get the money to fix it? The urgency of the situation was highlighted on December 9 when transportation officials had to shut down the bridge due to safety concerns. After initially estimating the bridge would be closed for three weeks, NHDOT crews were able to make repairs quickly and on December 18 the bridge was reopened with a three-ton weight restriction. The Portsmouth Herald called it an “early Christmas present.” It was quite an achievement, and both the bridge and the Route 136 repairs demonstrate ingenuity and commitment to maintain critical links in our transportation network. Still, these incidents raise the larger question: Is this any way to run a transportation system?
Simply put, crisis management mode is not an efficient way to run a transportation system. It takes enormous resources, both in time and in funding, to operate from emergency to emergency – much more than if we provided proper maintenance and planned improvements. It diverts our attention from important issues including economic recovery and job creation.
Yet crisis management is bound to take a more important role in the future if we continue to underfund our transportation system. For decades we have been lulled into thinking that freeways, state roads and bridges should indeed be “free” and that somehow we can neglect basic investment in and maintenance of our roads and bridges without consequence.
But there are consequences! First, there is the loss of connectivity that we rely on for our families and businesses. While the closure of Route 136 made travel to work and school more challenging for my family, it had devastating impacts on area businesses. For one family, the collapsed road not only impacted the number of customers visiting their farm stand, it severed the link between their farm fields and farm stand during the height of the fall harvest. The impact of the Memorial Bridge closure during the busy holiday season also threatened businesses in downtown Portsmouth.
Second, there also are safety concerns. We were fortunate in both cases that no one was hurt. Still there is the impact road and bridge closures have on the greater public safety – the ability for emergency personnel and vehicles to respond quickly. When this concern was raised at a Durham meeting to discuss the closure, emergency representatives warned of increased response times and suggested residents call early if they thought they were having a heart attack and accident victims were often routed to Portland or Brunswick rather than Lewiston, that normally may have been closer, due to logistics.
Third, there is the money. Research shows that it can cost up to four times as much to repair a road when you delay maintenance. In fact, Maine has delayed so much maintenance on its roads and bridges, we now have a $720 million, two-year shortfall.
That brings to mind the old cliché: “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.” As we have discovered with Route 136 and the Memorial Bridge, when we do finally pay it can be very, very expensive.
We need to remember there’s a better, safer, more cost-effective and efficient way. While an increase in the gas tax is not popular, the reality is we are paying more for car repairs and expensive road and bridge repairs due to lack of maintenance and upkeep.
With a new governor and legislature working to get our economy flowing, please call and write to let your representatives know that finding a solution to the transportation funding shortfall is critical. Just as people pulled together to address the Route 136 and Memorial Bridge closures, we need to pull together to address our transportation funding shortfall across this great state and get our roads and bridges back in safe condition and keep Maine’s economy moving – smoothly and without delay.