Legislative briefing addresses funding, sustainability and transit
A packed house including many state legislators and local elected officials recently heard Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System tell them what everybody knows.
“Transportation as we know it is crumbling,” said PACTS Policy Committee Chairwoman Katherine Earley at the Ocean Gateway meeting in Portland on December 13. Currently the PACTS region, which includes 15 towns and cities in southern Maine, has identified $200 million in repairs and improvements to collector roads that is currently not funded.
“The gas tax is not providing us with enough revenue now, and it only gets worse in the future,” said PACTS executive director, John Duncan.
The solution? Presenters at the briefing – Representative Ann Peoples (D-Westbrook), Paul Godfrey of HNTB and Patricia Quinn of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA) – offered three views of ongoing efforts to address the region’s transportation problems.
“We need to talk about the ‘F word’ and that is ‘funding,’” said Representative Peoples, a member of the Maine Legislature’s Transportation Committee. She called on members of the audience to offer their views on how to raise funds to fix area roads and bridges.
Several people present suggested that transit and user fees, in the form of gas taxes and tolls, were a solution. The federal gas tax has not been increased since 1993. Also people driving fuel-efficient cars are paying less in user fees.
Dennis Damon, a former senator from Trenton and past co-chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, said user fees should be increased to pay for the cost of maintaining the state’s roads.
“Nobody likes taxes, nobody likes user fees, but the ugly truth is, we need to increase those fees,” Damon said.
Looking for other solutions, several speakers referred to the well maintained, user-fee financed Maine Turnpike, suggesting some of those moneys could be used elsewhere.
But Conrad Welzel, Maine Turnpike Authority government relations manager, pointed out that in the late 1990s the Maine Legislature ruled the MTA was restricted in its use of toll revenues.
“The money collected has to go to what we’re collecting it for,” Welzel said. “[The legislature] felt it was smarter to keep the rates lower.”
Another option was to use the carrot of funding to promote more sustainable development policies in the region’s communities. Paul Godfrey of HNTB, that recently developed the Gorham East-West Corridor Study, was on hand and said findings suggested offering funded infrastructure improvements as an incentive for communities to limit growth to the designated areas would allow MaineDOT and PACTS “to stretch their funding.”
The study recommended targeting areas within Scarborough, South Portland, Westbrook and Gorham.
Several individuals in the audience also called on legislators to consider funding improved transit for the region to help reduce congestion.
NNEPRA’s Quinn spoke to efforts to expand passenger rail service. “It’s important to invest in a diversified transportation system,” said Quinn, adding that every mile of double train track has the carrying capacity of 14 lanes of highway.