The more things change. . .
60th Maine Transportation Conference looks at how industry has changed and will need to continue to adapt
Not surprisingly, talk at the Maine Transportation Conference on December 2 at the Augusta Civic Center was all about change: what changes are on the horizon with the shift in political power at state and federal levels; and also the history of change in Maine’s transportation industry – this was the 60th industry gathering, after all.
Keynote speaker Pete Rahn of HNTB Corp, a leading voice for change in the industry, focused on the need to use transportation as a catalyst for a greater economy. He talked about the challenge ahead for a new U.S. Congress that will grapple with passing legislation with long-term funding for the nation’s roads, bridges and transit. He was not particularly sanguine.
Rahn is the former head of the Missouri Department of Transportation and former president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
“We can’t have a funding bill until we have a way to pay for it,” he said bluntly. And he was bleak in his assessment of federal lawmakers’ willingness or ability to come up with new funding for transportation in the face of declining revenue from the federal gas tax.
“The question is not how do you grow the federal highway program? The only solution is how do you live with the dollars you have?” said Rahn.
With midterm elections having brought about a shift in political power at both the state and national levels and growing public concern over bonding and debt levels, how to fund regional and national transportation systems: that was the question on everybody’s mind.
Good time for taxes?
Rahn said we will need to prioritize our transportation funding decisions, and a good way to do that will be to view transportation as a catalyst for economic development. He talked about the ability of efficient transportation to support economic development. He cited the example of soybeans grown in Nebraska and how farmers have benefited from the availability of cost-efficient transportation, including rail, that has helped make them competitive in the global market, even in the face of growing competition from growers in Brazil.
He also said that the subject of raising revenues will have to be on the table, despite all of the “no new tax” pledges that were made in the recent midterm elections.
“When has it ever been a good time to raise taxes?” said Rahn. “It has been when we’ve had the leadership who’ve said we must pay for things that are critical for our way of life.”
To pay for those critical things, including good roads and bridges, Rahn said we needed to look at radical new approaches to funding – such as a mileage charge. But changes like those are a long way off, said Rahn adding,
“I think we end up back at [raising] the gas tax – it’s the most economically direct approach.” Yet, whether it’s a charge at the pump or a tax on refineries, Rahn urged action. “Somehow, we’ve got to come up with the resources.”
The full day of seminars and workshops included technical and policy discussions of all things transportation. One of the most popular sessions was a retrospective by four current and past MaineDOT commissioners: David Cole, John Melrose, Dana Connors and George Campbell. They, in turn, each discussed the issues of their day, which to all who lived through them may have seemed every bit as insurmountable as MaineDOT’s current funding crunch.
Kathy Ruffalo of Ruffalo & Associates, a national consulting firm, and John Melrose of Maine Tomorrow headlined a mid-morning session titled “Transportation Funding,” that explored the issue from a national and regional perspective. Ruffalo urged Maine transportation leaders to remain positive, creative and open to change, now that the country is emerging from the recession with new cost-conscious leaders in Washington.
Melrose, senior policy advisor for the Maine Better Transportation Association, and an author of its recently released policy paper, Transportation: The case for investment, spoke about the need to address funding from a number of angles – including re-prioritizing state and local transportation expenditures, identifying new funding sources and pursuing public-private partnerships.
The day also included presentations on: developments in passenger and freight transportation – air, transit and rail; launch of open road tolling on I-95 in New Hampshire; federal, state and municipal initiatives in transportation; accelerated infrastructure renewal; and a bridge building competition. John Dority, longtime chief engineer for MaineDOT,
provided a history of important transportation projects over the past 60 years.
Changing of the guard
At lunch, the Maine Turnpike Authority (MTA) presented a special award to Senator Dennis Damon, who left the Maine Legislature after three terms as co-chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Transportation. MTA Executive Director Paul Violette proclaimed Damon “Honorary Chairman” of the MTA for the day and called his efforts to improve transportation in Maine “courageous” – particularly his leadership in the 2007 passage of L.D. 1790: An Act to Secure Maine’s Transportation Future that created a framework for major changes in how Maine finances its transportation infrastructure.
At the conference luncheon, Commissioner David Cole announced several special awards given to individuals and groups in the department: the 2010 President’s Transportation Award from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) for introduction of “composite technologies into traditional transportation infrastructure in Maine”; and an Environmental Protection Agency Smart Growth Achievement Award for the Gateway 1 Corridor Action Plan. It was the first time the EPA has presented a rural region with one of its Smart Growth awards.
In addition to the special awards, MaineDOT also awarded the 2010 David Stevens Award at the conference to Bruce Van Note (see article in this issue). Commissioner Cole also announced four AASHTO 25-year merit awards that went to MaineDOT Director of Engineering and Operations David Bernhardt (Governor LePage recently nominated Bernhardt to head MaineDOT); Dale Peabody in the department’s safety, training and research unit; Assistant Director of Project Development William Pulver; and Director of Policy Development and Statewide Planning Duane Scott.