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Cover Story: Dissecting Question 4, the transportation bond

The November election has no shortage of high profile races and candidates. Still, one ballot issue MBTA members will be watching closely is the $51.5 million transportation bond referendum, Question 4.

By Maria Fuentes
 
Question 4 is one of four borrowing issues on the statewide ballot; voters will also be deciding on $11.3 million for public higher education; $7.9 million for wastewater purification and drinking water systems; and $5 million to ensure public access to forests, shores and other open spaces through easements and purchases.
 
In order to send borrowing questions out to voters, the Maine Legislature must approve a package with a two-thirds vote in each chamber. Like the other bond issues, the transportation bond was broadly supported by both the Maine House and Senate, garnering a 33-to-2 margin in the Senate and 109-to-32 in the House.
 
Still, bond politics have become more difficult in recent years, with concern over state debt levels from some legislators and Governor LePage. In fact, there was no bond package last year, and the governor has said he won’t allow approved bonds to be sold until 2014. Nonetheless, MBTA and many other organizations, are strongly supporting these critical investments in Maine’s economy.
 
What’s in the bond?
 
Behind the transportation bond referendum are several key issues. If passed, the transportation bond will fund projects in the areas of highway and bridges, aviation, marine, rail and transit. MBTA President Doug Hermann is appealing to members to help spread the word about the importance of getting friends, neighbors and others to support the transportation bond referendum, which is Question #4 on the statewide ballot. “That’s why we formed the Vote YES on Question #4 Coalition – to reach out to other organizations who know how important it is – for jobs and for safety – to support transportation investments.”
 
The majority of the $51.5 million bond – $41 million – would fund repair and reconstruction of Maine roads and bridges. There is also $6.5 million for improvements to two of Maine’s deep-water ports – Searsport and Eastport – as well as $2 million for transit, $1 million for rail, $1.2 million for aviation and $300,000 for the LifeFlight Foundation.
 
In total, the bond would reap more than double its value in matching funds – at least $105.6 million total in federal, local and private funding. According to Federal Highway Administration estimates, the highway and bridge funding, including the federal match, would support or create more than 3,100 jobs in the Maine economy.
 
‘Critical’ for transit
 
As vehicles become more fuel-efficient, and the federal government continues to ignore states’ needs for increased highway and transit dollars, state funding for roads and bridges becomes even more critical. Unfortunately, funding has also become more scarce. During the last legislative session, MaineDOT presented and the Maine Legislature passed legislation aimed at re-classifying and re-prioritizing the state’s highway network. As a result, the state will focus its very limited resources on the most important roads. Still, based on that analysis, the state says it needs an additional $150 million per year to make critical improvements. The backlog of highways and bridges is growing each year, and this bond will help fund some of the projects identified in the department’s current work plan.
 
The last transportation bond did not include investments for transit. State funding for transit is critical in terms of leveraging federal funds earmarked for transit. The Maine Transit Association and its members strongly favor passage of Question 4.
 
“Passage of the bond is critical for projects in many parts of the state,” said Paul Murphy, president of the Maine Transit Association and general manager of Downeast Transportation in Ellsworth. He notes: “Each year transit providers statewide provide 7.5 million trips totaling almost $59 million miles in Maine. They serve every corner of the state, from on-demand van service in rural areas to fixed bus routes in our major cities. However, transit providers are operating an aging fleet of vans and buses with 131 of 433 vehicles (30 percent) in either critical or scrap condition and requiring replacement. Question #4 will provide $1 million to replace these aging vehicles, which will be matched by up to $9 million in federal and local funds.”
 
Matching federal funds to purchase vehicles is a good deal for Maine. According to the Maine Transit Association, the federal government provides funding for the purchase of transit vehicles by covering 80 percent of the cost, with the remainder to come from state and local bus operators, usually a municipality or regional transportation provider. Historically, the state has bonded for transit vehicles and split the local match evenly with the local bus operator. As Maine distinguishes itself as one of the oldest states in the nation, travel options become much more critical, and transit buses are an ideal way to help meet that need.
 
Keeping ports competitive
 
If voters pass Question #4, $6.5 million of the proceeds would fund marine projects. David Cole is a past MaineDOT commissioner and currently president of David Cole Consulting. He is a transportation and economic development consultant for the Action Committee of 50 on their Trade and Logistics Initiative in the Bangor Region. The group is promoting the Bangor-Searsport corridor as a transportation hub and export platform for eastern and northern Maine.
 
According to Cole: “The $5 million of the transportation bond targeted for Searsport will provide $3 million in state matching funds for an estimated $15 million Army Corps of Engineers dredging project to deepen the Searsport shipping channel from 35-40 feet and address long overdue maintenance issues. These much-needed improvements will enhance the port’s competitive viability by allowing shipping companies better access into the channel, thus avoiding cumbersome scheduling issues that cost our businesses time and money.”
 
Cole said the remaining $2 million will be used to purchase material handling equipment at Mack Point to take advantage of export opportunities in Maine’s forest products and renewable energy industries. That will provide a cost-effective gateway for other goods flowing between the U.S. heartland and overseas markets.
 
An expert on regional trade, Cole continued: “Bond related improvements will strengthen Searsport’s ability to serve Maine businesses as a vital gateway between international markets and the heartland of Maine, and better position Maine as a whole to participate in the export arena.”
 
Past bond investments in the Port of Eastport have already created jobs and supported the local Washington County economy as the port has made dramatic strides in the past five years in terms of diversifying the mix of products going through the port.
 
Eastport Port Director Chris Gardner has been instrumental in the port’s impressive growth. As a fiscal conservative, Gardner acknowledges that bond discussions are difficult, but he also says that investments made in infrastructure have consistently shown themselves to be some of the best investments the state can make.
 
“In Eastport, the people of Maine have the deepest natural seaport in the entire continental United States. The investments made there always have paid dividends – in both jobs and economic growth. In the last decade alone, investments in the port’s new Estes Head Pier gave us the ability to double our export of Maine products to the world. In the upcoming year, the Port of Eastport is again looking to expand.”
 
According to Gardner, Maine’s export market and the $1.5 million in the upcoming transportation bond will play a huge role in that. “The majority of the bond funds for Eastport will assist in building a new 30,000-square-foot warehouse that will allow us to take on new customers currently looking to produce and ship out of Maine.”
 
Boosting rail
 
Past transportation bond packages have done a great deal to advance rail transportation in Maine, including the 2010 bond that helped MaineDOT purchase 144 miles of rail formerly owned by Montreal, Maine and Atlantic. Already, taxpayers are seeing a strong return on their investment. With the state owning the line and the new operator, Maine Northern Railroad, able to invest in improvements, traffic on parts of that section have tripled.
 
When Maine Northern took over, traffic was 100 – 120 cars per week on average. Today, the rail operator is seeing as many as 300 cars per week.
 
Question #4 includes funding for the popular Industrial Rail Access Program, or IRAP. It is a matching program in which either a company or municipality matches the state funds. Since its inception, IRAP has funded 39 economic development projects, mostly in rural parts of the state, where jobs are desperately needed. Earlier this year, 11 IRAP awards were announced, funded from prior bond proceeds and the state’s STAR program.
 
“IRAP is more of an economic development program as opposed to a railroad program and already has been proven successful in the past,” according to MRG (Maine Rail Group) President Jack Sutton.
 
Said Sutton: “The purpose is to increase access to rail and expand transportation options for business, with the goal of reducing their costs and making them more competitive regionally, nationally and internationally.” Awards in the past have benefitted every corner of the state, with projects from Biddeford to Madawaska, Searsport to Baileyville and Auburn.
 
Aviation, emergeny medical access
 
The $1.2 million slated for aviation would match Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) funds through their Airport Improvement Program. Maine has 37 public airports, and most of them are eligible for grants within this program. Typically the FAA provides 90 percent of the funds, and the expectation is that the state and/or municipality would provide the remaining funding.
 
Today, the state is likely to fund five percent with the remaining five percent coming from the airport or town. Projects may include runway reconstruction, apron rehabilitation or taxiway improvements, to name a few.
 
Additionally, there is $300,000 for the LifeFlight Foundation, for grants for communities to build helipads in areas with high use or in remote communities. While some towns such as Sumner and Carrabassett have already built helipads on their own, others such as Gouldsboro, Stratton and Harrington are interested but lack the funding. Half of the $300,00 is slated for those grants that will cover the cost of clearing land, paving a landing pad and purchasing wind socks and signs. The remaining $150,000 would go to help build a helipad at MaineGeneral in Augusta ($100,000), and at the Blue Hill Hospital.
Investing at the ballot box
 
“Our citizens have figured out the importance of investing in transportation and the proof is at the ballot box where, in the last three cycles, they have supported the transportation bond with between 58 and 65 percent of the vote and the year before, the margin was 72 percent,” said MBTA President Doug Hermann.

“So the citizens get it. Now, we just need to be sure we get the message out to Maine voters.” Hermann said that one of the big tasks for MBTA members in this election cycle is to help get out the vote in support of transportation investments. “We’re faced with an annual transportation funding shortfall of $150 million, according to recent figures from MaineDOT, and while this bond will only get us part of the way there, we can’t afford to fall further behind.”

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