What’s on their minds
Transportation Committee members Edward Mazurek and Peter Rioux offer MBTA’s Maria Fuentes their thoughts about the new MaineDOT Work Plan, user fees, bridges and ‘The Worst Road in Maine’
Maine Trails: The Highway Fund budget recently enacted by the Maine Legislature has $230 million less in funding for capital highway and bridge projects. Do you support continuing to reduce the amount of funding available for capital highway and bridge projects?
Representative Edward Mazurek: No. Doing so is counterproductive to one of the key building blocks to economic development: a strong infrastructure. By reducing the funding to our roads and bridges, we are weakening a vital component of our economic foundation.
Representative Peter Rioux: I supported it this time around – only because it is an initiative that will hopefully force more efficiencies within MaineDOT. But later on, no, we can’t keep cutting unless they are able to find more efficiencies and we can do more with less.
Maine Trails: In the current MaineDOT Work Plan, MaineDOT is programmed to reconstruct 63 miles during this biennium. With roughly 8,500 miles of state roads, how many miles should be reconstructed each year to avoid worsening conditions?
Rep. Mazurek: A minimum target should be a couple hundred miles per biennium. I know that reconstruction is very expensive – but it is well worth it. When we rebuild a road rather than put skinny mix on it, then the road is useable and is in good shape for many years - far longer than just putting a coating on it. We are getting three to five years now on skinny mix roads, versus the 20+ years we would get from reconstruction. In the long run, by saving a few pennies now and not investing the way we should, we are shortchanging ourselves.
Rep. Rioux: Honestly, I think we need to rely on the folks who run the DOT, since they are the ones with the technical expertise. Also, we just don’t know what is going to happen in the future relative to vehicle usage. There are a lot of demands for people to have different forms of transportation and different ways to move around. Will we be using these roads more or less? Everything is changing and we cannot predict the future.
Maine Trails: Most states provide General Fund support for transportation investments – in fact at a national average of 17.65 percent of the total General Fund budget. In Maine, there is no consistent commitment of General Fund monies to support transportation infrastructure, despite the large role transportation plays in the economy and its impacts on things like sales and income tax revenues. Do you think that should change?
Rep. Mazurek: Yes, we have to look at how we fund our highway system because we do have a separate Highway Fund budget that is responsible for all roads and bridges. By not taking anything out of the General Fund budget, there are times when we are saying that roads and bridges are going to take a back seat. What we really need is a steady source of funding for our roads and bridges. It seems to be hit and miss. As a result, we rely heavily on bonding and heavily on federal assistance.
Rep. Rioux: I think at some point we are going to have to look at that. The cost of doing business is going up all the time and that includes building roads. The current funding method will likely fall short in the future.
Maine Trails: The last few work plans have been partially funded by general obligation bonds and GARVEE bonds, but this work plan has neither, and there is a good chance that there will be no General Fund support for transportation at the end of the biennium. Do you support passage of a general obligation bond in the next session to make critical capital improvements to highways, bridges and other modes? What about a GARVEE bond for highways and bridges?
Rep. Mazurek: Yes, I do. We made a mistake by not having any bonds this session. What is going to happen is that the funding may be adequate for 2012 – we will see work being done – but then we fall off a cliff in 2013 or 2014. There will be a funding shortage, and I am afraid we will see our roads really deteriorate.
Rep. Rioux: It is hard to predict at this point. We will really have to wait to see what the needs are next session. If bonding was the only way to fund our needs, then I may support it, but it shouldn’t be our first choice. A lot has to do with what the governor’s priorities are.
Maine Trails: Public investment in infrastructure has been a way to jumpstart the economy during difficult economic times in the past. Do you think that model still works today?
Rep. Mazurek: No question about it. Yes, it does. Public infrastructure – whether it is state, local or federal – is an economic driver. Those projects put a lot of contractors and subs to work. Highway work, paving and bridges – those projects result in the hiring of thousands of people. Those people take their paychecks and put the money back into the community. So state highway work is a vital part of any economic recovery. It is part of our economic system. In times of crisis, the government should step in, put people to work, and make the state and country a better place for us to live in.
Rep. Rioux: Yes, it does work, at least to a limited degree. Sometimes it is hard to say if it is working now: unemployment is very high and the economy is sluggish. But if we weren’t investing in our infrastructure, then things would likely be worse. So yes, investment in our infrastructure is critical to Maine’s economic future, but we also have to remain cognizant of our debt service.
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. Mazurek: One is bridges, because they are vital to keeping our infrastructure going. Our bridges are in horrendous shape – many were built 60 years ago and their life expectancy is running out. One bridge out of commission could tie up an entire region of our state. So maintenance of good funding is really needed.
Another area is arterials – avenues of commerce, avenues of transportation. That’s where our economic livelihood rests. If we have a limited amount of money, we have to pick out the top priorities – where goods and services are moved - and spend money on those roads and bridges. If there is money left over, we can go to the secondary areas where there isn’t as much commerce or roads or economic activity.
Rep. Rioux: Limited dollars have to go to highways and bridges and collector roads. We are a rural state and we need good roads. However, if we have more dollars, we should also be looking at our ports – there is a huge opportunity in our ports to move freight, and this could really help the economy of Maine. Relative to public transportation, that really should be focused in densely populated areas; the same is true of high-speed rail.
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. Mazurek: Yes, I do. It is a top priority. We know that from past experiences. For the past seven years that I have been in the legislature, we have seen that the bridge situation is becoming more and more critical. Right now, there are three big bridges in southern Maine that are in critical condition and need to be fixed in the next few years to avoid interruptions in our infrastructure. So yes, it is definitely a top priority.
Rep. Rioux: Yes absolutely, without safe bridges our roads have little value.
Maine Trails: If you could request the federal government to fund one transportation project in Maine, what project would that be?
Rep. Mazurek: One of the areas would be in fixing up our seaport areas: that is an area we tend to overlook. Being so close to Europe, Maine has amazing potential. I would love to see Sears Island developed as an international port. From Sears Island, we could distribute goods from all over the United States – there is a railroad less than a mile away – to markets across the world.
Rep. Rioux: An east-west highway and continuing the interstate to northern Aroostook from Houlton. Both projects would connect us to New Brunswick in a better way and would create more international commerce.
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. Mazurek: Yes, I do. In the past seven years, I have heard different ideas for funding transportation, but nothing sticks. We are paying user fees, and yes, we should expand into tolling and other user fees.
Rep. Rioux: I do think user fees are a good way to fund our system. If you use a road, you should pay for it. I am not sure how much more we can do with the gas tax. At some point, we will have to do something different. Money has to come from somewhere if we want to continue to have the independence that driving a car allows.
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?
Rep. Mazurek: Yes, there is a good marriage between trucking and rail. People are fearful that if you use rail, you are going to do away with trucking, or vice versa. That is not true. You may take some trucks off the road for certain freight, but there are commodities that are better served by trucks than by rail. What we do need is to ensure that the rail operators become much more cooperative, and they need to work together for the good of the state.
Rep. Rioux: Yes, I support rail transportation, but not at the expense of our highway and collector road system.
Maine Trails: What is your biggest priority for the next session of the legislature’s Transportation Committee? In your opinion, what was the most important achievement by the committee this year?
Rep. Mazurek: I believe we should look at a good, workable bond package and put it out as quickly as we can. That should be one of our top priorities. I really hope that the leadership and Governor LePage will see the value of putting out a bond. By not doing it, we are making a huge mistake. I will push very hard for a bond package. I believe in talking with other members of the caucus, that is a priority.
In terms of accomplishments, I will just say that we survived a very hard year under duress.
Rep. Rioux: Our biggest achievement was suspending the fuel tax indexing. Why? Because that was not a fair tax and we are showing the people that we are trying hard to make MaineDOT more efficient and more cost-effective in the service they provide. I really believe this department can do more with less, and this is one way to show Maine people that we are serious about making MaineDOT more efficient and protecting their tax dollars.
For next year, I would like to have MaineDOT model themselves more like private construction firms and private maintenance firms. If MaineDOT can communicate more with the private sector and see how they do business more efficiently, that would help save dollars. That way, they will be more successful in cutting costs and creating efficiencies, while still providing the services that the people of Maine need and still providing a quality workplace so employees will enjoy working there. I think the department can learn a lot from the private sector by getting ideas on how to run things, while ensuring there is still a happy workplace.
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. Mazurek: Old County Road in Rockland would be a good candidate. It is full of potholes; it has a huge crown in it; it has tar patches every three feet – no shoulders – very narrow; and people drive recklessly on it.
Rep. Rioux: I would nominate parts of Route 131 going from Swanville to Waldo – there are sections of it that are really rough, and there is not a firm foundation on parts of it.