Two for the roads
Bernhardt and Mills map out plans for Maine’s highways at MBTA panel
The room was packed on May 19 for the MBTA special panel discussion at the Augusta Center. The event preceded the organization’s 72nd annual meeting and more than 60 MBTA members and other leaders in the transportation field came to hear what the speakers had to say. The panel, titled New Era–New Priorities, was headlined by MaineDOT Commissioner David Bernhardt and interim Maine Turnpike Executive Director Peter Mills. Both had been recently appointed to their posts: Bernhardt by Governor Paul LePage during the early days of the new administration; and Mills by the Maine Turnpike Authority (MTA) board of directors after the resignation of the agency’s long-time executive director, Paul Violette.
Both speakers have taken up their posts at a time of major change. Bernhardt took over MaineDOT just as state government, including the Highway Fund, was facing major austerity measures. Mills assumed his post as the authority was addressing legislative scrutiny about its spending practices and operations. Everyone in the room was anxious to hear how recent political, economic and policy changes were impacting both agencies.
Bernhardt’s presentation focused on his department’s work to make the best of the limited funding it has by establishing tightly defined priorities based on customer service levels and key highway corridors. Mills, in his turn, spoke about re-defining how the agency financially supports key MaineDOT initiatives within its corridor and how the highway serves Maine industries, including tourism.
Bernhardt began the session with a straightforward accounting of what is shaping up to be one of the most austere MaineDOT budget cycles in several decades. He spoke first about the 2011 project schedule, of which $118 million for 81 projects had been advertised since January 1: $16 million for bridges, $97 million for highways and $2.3 million for multimodal projects. He said another $111 million in projects was expected to be advertised and awarded within the next 90 days. The commissioner then shifted his focus to the $998 million 2012-2013 biennial work plan and budget that was still under discussion at the state legislature – a major portion of which is slated for highway and bridge maintenance and improvements.
While the new work plan has more than $230 million less in capital investments than the 2010-2011 work plan, Bernhardt took a decidedly optimistic view of the situation, highlighting MaineDOT achievements including an aggressive effort to address Maine’s backlog of deteriorating bridges and the creation of the four-year TransCap bridge program that generated $160 million in special one-time funding enacted by the Maine Legislature in 2008. That program is coming to a close, and Bernhardt hailed its success. So far approximately 150 bridges have been either replaced, repaired or rehabilitated.
Bernhardt said that when MaineDOT spends the $55 million remaining of those bridge funds, “we will have ended up doing what we said we would do four years ago.”
Much of what he spoke about was making do with the resources available to the department, focusing on “keeping roads serviceable” and doing “what we can afford.”
The Maine Turnpike Authority’s new chief offered a look at what is ahead for the 109-mile toll highway. But that was not before he addressed the elephant in the room – the report released earlier this year by the Maine Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Accountability. That report led to the resignation of Mills’ predecessor Paul Violette and instigation of management and spending reforms. He jokingly referred to recent months as the turnpike has faced “nine times as much controversy as MaineDOT with just one-ninth the highway.” He also spoke about L.D. 1538, legislation that creates greater transparency in how the agency operates. The legislature passed the bill in early June and Governor LePage has since signed it into law.
Mills addressed concerns about proposed legislation supported by Maine Treasurer Bruce Poliquin that would require agencies including the MTA, Maine State Housing Authority and the Finance Authority of Maine to send bonds out to public vote.
“This is not a bill that should see the light of day,” said Mills.
Mills also addressed the future of the highway and his vision for turning the turnpike into “a red carpet entrance to the state of Maine.” That vision calls for remaking turnpike service areas with the Maine brand – including Maine-made products such as Giffords Ice Cream and Linda Bean’s “perfect Maine” lobster rolls.
Mills talked about the future of tolling in Maine at a time when a few legislators and organizations have been pushing to divert toll revenues for other projects, from buses to bridges. He urged caution in protecting the funding sources for the highway that carries a majority of all commercial traffic in the state and said we should not divert tolls to other projects just because “we don’t have the courage to raise the gas tax.” He instead underscored ongoing collaborations and funding support the MTA provides MaineDOT on projects including the Memorial Bridge in Kittery, alternative modes programs GO MAINE, ZOOM Turnpike Express and Eastern Trail Bridge and ongoing work with MaineDOT on the Gorham Connector and York County Connections studies to improve critical transportation networks within the MTA corridor.