2012 transportation debate was dominated by prioritization, State Police funding, bonds and an east-west highway study
As the 125th Maine Legislature wrapped up, the Department of Health and Human Services shortfall dominated the news, but there were times when transportation made headlines during the extended session. And as Maine Trails was preparing to go to press, budgets and funding continued to make headlines. On May 25, despite his personal disapproval of bonding, Governor LePage decided to allow four bonds to go to voters, including a $51.5 million transportation bond. (He vetoed a $20 million research and development bond.) In addition to passing the transportation bond, legislators addressed several other transportation issues during the session. They agreed to fund a feasibility study regarding a private east-west toll route, debated Highway Fund support for the Maine State Police and established new priorities and funding expectations for maintaining the state’s highways and bridges.
While the legislative session addressed these important transportation issues, MBTA Executive Director Maria Fuentes said there are many issues that the 125th Maine Legislature did not address and that still hang in the balance.
“We did get a modest bond that will go out to voters this fall, and we are grateful for that,” said Fuentes. “But frankly, there are a lot of other issues that didn’t get addressed during this session.”
MBTA President Doug Hermann agreed. “The truth is they have left a big order of work for the next legislature – legislators didn’t address General Fund support for highways – with the exception of the bond issue - or state police funding or the long-term funding challenges facing the Highway Fund.”
While there were budget and other bills that could have addressed these issues, none of those early promises came to fruition. Some majority party legislators said many times that they wanted the General Fund to contribute to the Highway Fund. Still, by the end of the session, the only General Fund support for transportation that materialized was in the form of a bond that, if approved by voters, will be repaid with General Fund dollars.
Moreover, highway maintenance suffered a setback in the legislature’s final supplemental budget for 2012-13, in which more than $6 million was cut from capital highway and bridge projects. Those cuts were due to lower than expected Highway Fund revenues.
Private take on east-west debate
In mid-February, the Transportation Committee took up a bill to fund a feasibility study for a privately owned and operated east-west transportation corridor. The bill called for $300,000 in funding from MaineDOT for the study, and during public testimony on the bill it received broad public support from a number of groups, including the Maine Better Transportation Association.
There were some concerns from committee members about using public money for a private enterprise during such tight economic times, and as a result, the original bill was amended to require that the corridor developer repay MaineDOT if the project proceeds.
Many in Maine see the considerable potential in a private east-west route – from jobs created during its construction to the connectivity and economic development potential the route holds for northern and Downeast Maine. At the February 14th Transportation Committee hearing on the measure, Peter Vigue of Cianbro told the committee such a highway would give “Maine every potential to become the Northeast trade gateway.” Vigue has been an outspoken proponent of a privately funded and managed east-west route, and has expressed his views frequently to groups throughout the state.
The measure passed the committee with a majority ought-to-pass vote, was approved by both houses of the legislature and signed into law by Governor LePage on April 5.
At the public hearing on the bill, there was opposition from groups concerned about environmental impacts of the project. Also, the project will need to attract hefty private investment to move forward, but the major reason for the study is to show that this project is necessary to improve Maine’s economy, and will be attractive to investors looking for a return on that investment. The MaineDOT is expected to hire a consultant to complete the study soon, and hopes to have the study completed by January 2013.
The legislature also took up L.D. 1623 – An Act To Simplify Toll Discounts and Amend Certain Powers and Procedures of the Maine Turnpike Authority. The bill called for amendments to the Maine Turnpike Authority’s (MTA) commuter discount program established by the Maine Legislature in 1981, as well as other changes to the agency’s governance and operations.
The bill passed handily in both the Transportation Committee and legislature at large. It was signed into law by Governor LePage on February 22. The MTA is expected to raise tolls by 2013, and this will help to simplify the rate structure and administration of the agency’s E-ZPass program. Under the new law, the agency estimates approximately 44 percent of E-ZPass customers would pay less, while 45 percent would pay about the same. About 11 percent would pay more.
The legislation also includes a provision that will help the MTA reduce the cost of collecting tolls from violators. Under the old rules, the MTA had to send violation notices via certified mail. Under L.D. 1623, the authority can use first-class mail.
Police funding saga
The Transportation Committee also continued its long-running debate on the role of the Highway Fund in support for the Maine State Police. In 2007, a study on Maine State Police funding by the legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation & Government Accountability (OPEGA) reported that the Highway Fund was overpaying for highway-related state police activities. The current percentage being paid by the Highway Fund is 49 percent; OPEGA said that the agency spends between 17 and 34 percent of its time on transportation-related activity. A more recent report completed by the Maine State Police, for which troopers recorded actual hours spent on traffic enforcement, indicated the agency is spending no more than 34 percent of its time on transportation.
That debate came to a head in early April when the committee considered a request for $36,000 to help fund a forensic chemist position for DNA analysis in the state police crime lab.
“It is this committee that is now again placed in a position where we have to decide. I would even say our back is to the wall where we are not going to be doing the function of the crime lab if the Highway Fund doesn’t pick up the tab for it when, in fact, I am not sure the Highway Fund should be picking up the tab for this,” commented Transportation Committee Chair Rich Cebra (R-Naples) during a work session on the measure.
The committee ultimately agreed to fund the position for the remainder of the biennial budget. Still, many committee members were conflicted. The MBTA intends to continue to advocate for a more equitable split of funding of state police activities. If successful, a 34 percent division of funding could free up approximately $8 million in highway fund dollars to support MaineDOT’s annual budget for maintaining the state’s roads and bridges.
Last year, MBTA retained Tim Woodcock of the Eaton Peabody law firm to review Article 9, Section 19 of the Maine Constitution, which dedicates the use of highway funds. Woodcock was asked to determine if current legislative actions were consistent with this language. His analysis called into serious question the constitutionality of current levels of highway fund support for the State Police. If there was an alternative point of view to Woodcock’s in the legislative or executive branch, it was not offered through any of the deliberations in committee or on the floor of the Senate or House.
Ironically, the research also found that the constitutional amendment approved in 1943 was intended to stop highway funding of the State Police for activities other than traffic enforcement. The legislative record of that time notes the advocacy of the Maine Good Roads Association in securing the constitutional amendment.
Meanwhile, the legislature passed L.D. 1753 – An Act to Improve Transportation in the State with little fanfare, a bill that is bound to impact the future of Maine’s transportation system for years to come. (Governor LePage signed the bill into law). L.D. 1753 sets new standards and priorities for maintaining the state’s network of roads and bridges.
It also establishes a new estimate of Maine’s transportation funding gap, noting it will require an additional $150 million per year over the next 10 years to bring Maine’s roads and bridges up to the standards set in the new MaineDOT legislation. That estimate is approximately half of the funding benchmark set by the legislature in 2007, a result of an increasingly dark outlook for future state and federal transportation funding.
MBTA Senior Policy Advisor John Melrose spoke before the legislature’s Transportation Committee on January 31st in support of the bill: “There is a bit of irony here as MBTA supports legislation that would cut Maine’s commitment to capital investment in transportation roughly in half.” Melrose’s testimony took into account the fiscal realities that have forced the hand of MaineDOT and the legislature to focus limited resources on the state’s most heavily traveled roads, but faulted the new guidelines for the potential neglect of much needed rural road improvements that are classified as Priority 4 and 5 highways under the new law.
The MBTA also raised concerns about funding for “extraordinary” transportation projects including the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge that connects Maine and New Hampshire, which currently is unfunded.
The project was once estimated to cost $130 million, but the price tag may eventually be considerably higher. New Hampshire recently changed the scope of the bridge project to accommodate larger ships, and that could drive the cost of construction to $190 million. Cost for construction of the bridge will be shared between the two states.
FMI: MBTA advocates for investment in safe, efficient transportation for Maine. To learn more call 207-622-0526 e-mail Maria@MBTAonline.org