Sometimes less really is less
At some point, we will stretch our transportation investments so far that something is bound to break
By Randy Mace, MBTA President
For the next two years, Maine will be spending $230 million less on capital improvements to its highways and bridges. Stretching a dollar can be good, and we all know that during the past few years, as our economy has struggled to recover, there has been a good measure of dollar stretching going on.
You can stretch a dollar from here to eternity, but the truth is, eventually, something is bound to break.
Case in point is the Highway Fund budget and biennial work plan. Over the past several years, MaineDOT has become quite adept at stretching a dollar – a skill that Governor LePage praised at the MBTA Annual Meeting in May. That skill has been developed over many years of under-funding, as the fuel tax provides inadequate revenues to run the department. But after years of cutting staff and trimming programs, there isn’t much room left to stretch.
As a result of the cuts in spending, in the coming biennium, Maine will reconstruct only 60-some miles out of its network of more than 8,500 miles of state roads. At that rate, we are expecting those roads to last 280 years before we get a chance to fix them again. That means there is only a slim chance that the really rough road you need to get to work or the roads your company’s trucks depend on will get fixed in your lifetime.
Unfortunately, “stretching a dollar” in this budget cycle also means using funds originally intended for capital investments for short-term fixes instead, that I fear unintentionally may mask systemic problems in the state’s transportation system. That is what is happening now that the legislature agreed to reclassify “skinny mix” paving as “light capital paving.” That means the state is using $4.2 million dollars in Transcap funds originally meant for bridge and road reconstruction for “skinny mix” paving that, under the best of conditions, tends to last only five to seven years. If we have one or two bad winters, it could last as few as three years. Traditionally, capital projects have been defined as having a life of 10 or more years. Maine already spends precious little on its capital transportation, and by changing the definition of capital, we are playing with fire.
The last issue of Maine Trails talked about the problems of putting off critical capital maintenance of our bridges and the effect it can have on the local economy. We have been fortunate to avoid a major bridge disaster, but we have had our share of difficult choices to face. Going back to the crisis that led to construction of the Penobscot Narrows Bridge, completed in 2006 up to the present day struggle to find funding for three key bridges at Maine’s southern and northern borders, we are really stretching the limits of safety.
This is my first column as president of the MBTA, but I have been proud to be part of this organization for quite some time. We have accomplished a lot over the years, and I know that my fellow MBTA members are committed to continuing this good work.
The most important thing will be to stay out front with our message of safety, efficiency and economic development. Policymakers need to hear our voices. They need to be reminded just how important transportation funding is to Maine’s economy. We have heard that next year, there is support on both sides of the aisle for an infrastructure bond package. When the time comes, I will be calling on you to join me in working with our leaders to make sure that they include a robust transportation bond in that package.
We are very encouraged that Governor LePage is committed to re-doubling his efforts to use General Fund monies to fund highways and bridges. As a businessman, the governor understands that the transportation sector contributes heavily to sales tax and other revenues, and we appreciate his leadership in generating more funding for critical transportation projects.
The governor and the legislature have very difficult jobs. Elected officials often make enormous sacrifices in order to do the state’s business. They deserve a lot of credit for that. They also have many difficult, sometimes unpopular decisions. They make those decisions because they want to move the state forward. Because they deal with so many issues, it is important that those in the transportation community make their voices heard. Each and every one of us should get to know our legislators and tell them why we think it is critical to Maine’s future to better fund transportation. If we sit on the sidelines and don’t tell our story, then we can’t expect them to know why investing in our system is so important.
So instead of stretching dollars, let’s stretch our vision. Let’s look ahead to the future and make the commitment to building the kind of transportation system that our children and grandchildren will be proud to use. I know we can do this, because even more than frugality, Mainers are known for their common sense and Yankee ingenuity.