What’s on their minds
Transportation Committee members James S. Gillway and Alex R. Willette offer MBTA’s Maria Fuentes their thoughts about Maine’s $220 million decrease in transportation funding, the legislative coming session, user fees and ‘The Worst Road in Maine’
Maine Trails: The Highway Fund budget recently enacted by the Legislature has $220 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 James S. Gillway: I don’t support the reduction, per se, I just wish there were more money to go around. We spent considerable resources on light capital paving (formerly known as maintenance surface treatment), and that isn’t always the best way to go, but it was necessary. My hope is that we can soon go back to doing more miles of highway reconstruction.
Representative Alex R. Willette: No. Capital improvement projects are crucial in maintaining Maine’s transportation infrastructure. Unfortunately, the economy has had a major impact on Highway Fund revenue. Like all Maine families, the Transportation Committee had to make difficult decisions to sustain a balanced budget. With the help of Commissioner Bernhardt and his staff at MaineDOT, we worked very hard to stabilize funding for road and bridge repair, thereby cutting areas of the budget that were less of a priority.
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. Gillway: I would love to see that happen in Maine. What we do here in Searsport [where Rep. Gillway is town manager] is a three-pronged approach to fixing our roads. We use some tax-based money, as well as state URIP money, and the excise tax. This way, we are not entirely dependent on fees. Of course, we have been plagued with increasing costs; when I first started as town manager five years ago, the cost of pavement was $38 per ton, and now it is pushing $80 per ton. So although we tripled the amount of money going to our road system, some of that is being eaten up by costs. But we are definitely holding our own. Originally, we only used our URIP funds, which is about $50,000, but by moving to a three-pronged approached, we are definitely keeping our head above water.
Rep. Willette: Definitely. In fact, Representative Patrick S. A. Flood (R-Winthrop), who chairs the Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs, developed an initiative to use funds from a future liquor contract for the purpose of supplementing the Highway Fund. This outside-of-the-box method of thinking needs to continue, as I firmly believe that there needs to be General Fund support for vital transportation infrastructure.
Maine Trails: The last few work plans have been partially funded by general obligation bonds and GARVEE bonds, but the current work plan has neither. Do you support passage of a transportation bond next session to make critical capital improvements to highways, bridges and other modes? What about a GARVEE bond for highways and bridges?
Rep. Gillway: What we really need to do is take a comprehensive look at our needs, and see what we have available to fund them. I think bonding should be on the table, and shouldn’t be automatically dismissed, but we should also look at all other options at the same time.
Rep. Willette: We first need to prioritize project funding, and then scrutinize each bond proposal individually. This year, the only bond initiatives that came before the Transportation Committee were for the purpose of funding the Kittery bridges.
It needs to be made clear that bonding is like using one’s credit card. A lot needs to be considered before pulling this quick and easy method of payment out of your wallet, such as long-term interest at the cost of future funding for education, helping the truly needy, and of course road and bridge maintenance, just to name a few. When we take the time to plan and govern responsibly, projects can be paid for directly. By getting the maximum benefit from every tax dollar collected, the state will not need to be burdened with interest payments.
Maine Trails: Public investment in infrastructure has been a way to jump start the economy during difficult economic times in the past. Do you think that model still works today?
Rep. Gillway: I do think investment in infrastructure puts people to work quickly, but those jobs are short-lived since the projects are presumably completed quickly, then those folks are no longer on the payroll. So yes, the model works, but there is a life span to those projects. Ideally, that money would be replaced so that people can continue working, and those can be long-term jobs.
Rep. Willette: A lesson learned from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is that the resultant job creation from funds received was only short-term. Once the projects were done, contactors were then faced with the arduous task of once again laying off workers.
Is public investment in infrastructure necessary? Yes it is; however, not at the expense of mortgaging our future and tying down future generations to pay for the accumulated debt. Long-term recovery must be a public/private partnership, with both sides acting sensibly to help restore people’s hope in the American dream.
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. Gillway: Again, we need to take a comprehensive look at the entire state. Where we are most exposed? Bridges? Certain roads? Heavily traveled roads? Maybe it is our secondary roads that are creating most problems in terms of damage to vehicles. So we should take a broad look, but our first priorities have to be health and safety.
Rep. Willette: First, we should focus on bridges. The collapse of the I35W Mississippi River Bridge and Hurricane Irene showed the vulnerability of our bridges – not just in Maine, but also across the nation. Government – national, state and local – needs to live up to its responsibility of providing the public with sound infrastructure.
Second, MaineDOT does a top-notch job taking care of major arterial highways like the interstate, but we have to look at improved funding for our more rural roads. In Aroostook County, Routes 1 and 11, two central thoroughfares, have been well-maintained, but only as a result of its county delegation’s diligent work. I am proud to be part of this persevering group, as we persistently put aside our partisan differences to put our constituents’ interests ahead of politics.
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. Gillway: We definitely need to find ways to pay more attention to bridges. I recently wrote a letter of support for a TIGER 3 grant for the Richmond/Dresden Bridge. We need to do it as quickly as we can, and we can’t have a repeat of what has happened in other parts of the country.
Rep. Willette: Yes. As I said earlier, bridges should be a top priority. Major catastrophes are linked with these aging and fast-deteriorating crossings. Lives are saved and quality of life is maintained and improved by making certain bridges are in good repair.
Realizing the priority of safe overpasses, money should come from available resources, not bond revenue. Again, responsible planning and governance will allow for such projects to be funded without growing public debt.
Maine Trails: If you could request the federal government to fund one transportation project in Maine, what project would that be?
Rep. Gillway: It is important to go after every single federal dollar available for every project, regardless of what part of the state it is in. We need to fund whatever we can with federal monies. It really doesn’t much matter whether it is a small or big project – just that we leverage every available federal dollar.
Rep. Willette: The extension of I-95 north of Houlton immediately comes to mind. Consequently, tractor-trailer trucks would have a faster, more direct means of travel, thus increasing safety for motorists on Routes 1 and 11. In addition, goods would be brought to market faster, thus lowering costs and helping to develop the overall economy of Aroostook.
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?
Rep. Gillway: User fees are one source, but they shouldn’t be the only source. They have a place but we can’t rely on them completely to pay for our infrastructure.
Rep. Willette: In my view, user fees are a good part of the mix. Nonetheless, everyone benefits from Maine’s roads and highways. The majority of freight comes in and out of our state on trucks. Even if you do not own a car, you still benefit from infrastructure. This is why I favor General Fund support for our highways.
So, yes, user fees are a component, but not the only component. We need to work on building a broader overall funding mix.
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. Gillway: I believe it is very important to look at freight and passenger rail, because rail leaves a smaller footprint, and it is generally more efficient. Everybody is looking to reduce their carbon footprint and rail is one way to do it immediately.
Rep. Willette: Further developing a strong freight system would be a major tool in helping Maine’s economic development. In relation to passenger rail, I am not certain it would be a worthwhile investment right now, but it is certainly something that should be looked at and carefully considered as our state’s and nation’s financial outlook improves.
Maine Trails: What is your biggest priority for the next session of the Maine Legislature’s Transportation Committee? In your opinion, what was the most important achievement by the committee this year?
Rep. Gillway: We had many folks in front of us talking about inspection laws and changing them so they are not required annually; this may not be the most important issue we deal with, but it is one in which there is a great deal of public interest, so it is important in that sense. There is a carry-over bill, and I hope we resolve it in some manner.
An important achievement was the movement forward on the Gold Star plates. I have received a lot of positive feedback from that, and it was a positive accomplishment to get that pushed forward.
Rep. Willette: Our best achievement was passing a unanimous Highway Fund budget, the first time this had been done in a decade. There were definitely some hard decisions that had to be made in order to reach a consensus on the $637 million plan. Nonetheless, we came together, did what was best for the state and passed a budget that did not increase taxes, but also provided a sensible amount of funding for bridge and highway maintenance.
For the next session, I look forward to hearing from the Maine Turnpike Authority (MTA) regarding the progress they have made in re-tooling the agency, as well as in cutting unnecessary expenses. So far, Peter Mills has done a great job in making the MTA a more efficient operation, so I am anxious to hear more.
Additionally, I am interested in discussing Senator Doug Thomas’ (R-Ripley) rural roads bill. Hopefully, this will draw more attention to the need for better care of our rural ways.
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. Gillway: I saw where Route 141 won the contest and I have driven over it, so I agree it was a good choice.
Rep. Willette: Many of the state roads in my district are in good shape; unfortunately, there are roads maintained by municipalities throughout my district that are in poor condition. If we could work on building and improving connections between MaineDOT and town highway departments, I believe these roads could be much improved. Having talked with Commissioner Bernhardt about the state’s many great relationships with local communities, I am certain that he will continue to develop a better, lasting rapport with them, so that all Mainers will benefit from these partnerships.