Message from the top
Governor LePage greets MBTA members at 72nd annual meeting
The MBTA’s 72nd annual meeting on May 19 at the Augusta Civic Center began on a high note, with an address from Maine Governor Paul LePage. Maine’s first Republican governor since John McKernan left office in 1995, LePage is known for his straight talk, and passion for improving Maine’s business climate. His sometimes blunt assessment of policy has made headlines, but he was clearly at home in the crowd, dominated by business owners, town officials and others invested in the state’s transportation future.
During his talk, the governor shared his diverse views on transportation and transportation funding with the nearly 200 MBTA members and friends gathered for the annual event.
“As we all know, transportation – especially our road transportation – is our backbone,” said Governor LePage after a warm introduction by Senator Tom Martin (R-Kennebec County), an MBTA board member and former MBTA president. The governor touched on almost every mode of transportation – road, rail, ports and aviation – and he expressed strong opinions on the priorities Maine should focus on as it moves ahead. He spoke about the need to emphasize the basics, to “get our fiscal house in order,” to “stretch dollars” and make better use of transportation funding, so “we don’t fall further behind in our maintenance.” He also called for a no-frills approach to getting the job done.
“I want functional designs,” said LePage. “When we’re prosperous, we can make things beautiful.”
The governor also had high praise for MaineDOT Commissioner David Bernhardt and his staff. “MaineDOT supports our agenda for making Maine great.” He talked about the challenges ahead for the department and called on staff “to optimize the limited resources we have to make repairs.”
From transportation, the governor shifted his remarks to the bigger picture of state government and the General Fund shortfall that was still under debate in the Maine Legislature. Using his particular brand of folksy common sense that helped win him the office of governor, he talked about the “hard work” that would be needed to “fix the shortfall” and that the “only way to make it go away is to have a government that we can afford.”
Before the governor left the MBTA gathering, he seemed to indicate a softening stance on bonding and spoke of the transportation industry’s need to get their legislators to weigh in on transportation funding in the coming year. He also reiterated his opposition to raising taxes, apparently referring to any effort to either increase the gas tax or raise any other tax to support transportation investments. “I will tell you, raising taxes will send us right back into the recession.” LePage also called on Maine to get back to its roots and to exploit opportunities in forestry and agriculture. “We need to prepare our students to take on the jobs we are going to create in the future. We need to focus on the trades, on industry and construction.”
There were several other key players on the state’s political and transportation scenes at the meeting. The Maine Turnpike’s interim executive director Peter Mills and MaineDOT Commissioner David Bernhard spoke at a special MBTA panel discussion earlier in the day. Outgoing MBTA president Deborah Dunlap Avasthi introduced a room full of transportation leaders, including former MaineDOT commissioners Roger Mallar and John Melrose and several state legislative leaders including: Transportation Committee members Senator Bill Diamond (D-Cumberland); Representative Kenneth Theriault (D-Madawaska); Representative Alex Willette (R-Mapleton); and Representative Kimberley Rosen (R-Bucksport). Also in attendance were House Majority Leader Phil Curtis (R-Madison), Assistant House Minority Leader Andre E. Cushing III (R-Hampden) and Senator Earle McCormick (R-Kennebec).
U.S Senator Susan Collins sent a video greeting to MBTA members underscoring her long-standing support for important transportation initiatives, including securing legislation for a permanent 100,000-pound weight increase for trucks traveling the interstate, and funding for the Memorial Bridge replacement in Kittery. House Majority Leader Representative Phil Curtis, also a consultant for MaineDOT’s Local Roads Center, spoke about the need to do everything “a little better, a little smarter to make the ride a little smoother.”
Dunlap Avasthi talked about the legislative session and negotiations regarding the Highway Fund that still had more than a month to go at the time of the May meeting. She found several bright spots in what has been a challenging time for the industry as it has struggled to recover from the recession and as state dollars for transportation have grown increasingly scarce. She spoke about the importance of the Maine Turnpike Authority to the state. The agency has been under fire during the current session after a report from the Office of Program Evaluation and Accountability (OPEGA) looked at a number of issues within the agency.
“We must remember that 95 percent of OPEGA’s findings were positive,” said Dunlap Avasthi, urging everyone to keep in mind that the “turnpike is an incredible engine for the state of Maine’s economy.”
She also said that we couldn’t rely entirely on Yankee ingenuity to maintain our transportation system, and noted that despite the well-intended efforts of MaineDOT’s new work plan to deploy short-term fixes on the state’s badly deteriorating roads, Maine could not continue to let its highways languish. With just 63 miles of highway reconstruction scheduled in the upcoming biennial work plan, Dunlap Avasthi noted that it would be more than 280 years before Maine would be able to address much needed maintenance on its 8,500-mile network of state roads.
Incoming MBTA President Randy Mace showed he was ready to take up the charge for safer, more efficient transportation that Dunlap Avasthi was leaving behind. He spoke about the uncertainty of state funding for transportation, as the legislature had yet to take up either General Fund support for transportation or debate on a transportation bond. He urged MBTA members to stay engaged in the fight, and said that even if legislators could not agree on a bond this session, “that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to fight for what is right.”