What’s on their minds
Transportation Committee members Ann E. Peoples and Charles ‘Ken’ Theriault talk to MBTA’s Maria Fuentes.
Maine Trails: The Highway Fund budget recently enacted by the Legislature has significantly less 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 Ann E. Peoples: No, I do not support that.
Representative Charles ‘Ken’ Theriault: No, not at this time. I am very concerned with the lack of funding for our infrastructure. I am particularly disturbed for the companies doing highway construction work – they can provide good jobs if we put out a strong program of work. The expertise they have will be lost if we don’t keep these people and companies working. It is imperative for efficiencies, that we have the most efficient, the best people out there doing that type of work. We have to find ways to keep them afloat.
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, impacting sales and income tax revenues. Do you think that should change?
Rep. Peoples: Yes, I do, although I am not holding my breath.
Rep. Theriault: I would think that it needs to change simply because, as we sit, we don’t have the funds that are needed to even maintain the system that we have. At the very least, we should be maintaining our needs. We must find a way and maybe we need to revisit some of the previous legislation that was put in when former Senator Dennis Damon was here – L.D. 1790 – that created a blueprint for where we should be headed. As part of that legislation, we were supposed to have a flow of revenues going to transportation. We should revisit that and see what the possibilities may be for that. Because we are doing lots of skinny mix, and that is important. But we need to do much more construction. We all know there is a major need for keeping the infrastructure up to date.
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 to make critical capital improvements to highways, bridges and other modes? What about a GARVEE bond for highways and bridges?
Rep. Peoples: Yes, I do support both general obligation and GARVEE bonds. We need both in order to make investments in our transportation system and in our future.
Rep. Theriault: Yes to the general obligation bond. In terms of the GARVEE bond, we should consider having one for bridges. Again, all of this is dependent on what gets proposed to us as a committee. We should be proactive in that area, but I also think we need to hear more: I need a comprehensive picture of the needs before we decide what we need to spend.
Maine Trails: Public investment in infrastructure has been a way to jumpstart the economy during difficult economic times in the past. Do you think that model still works today?
Rep. Peoples: Yes, I sure do. I have so many transportation construction companies in my district. They hire people and pay them good wages, then those people turn around and invest in local businesses. These are skilled people. Let‘s get these people back to work.
Rep. Theriault: I think that model needs to be revisited and I suspect, from what I know, it is certainly one of the ways to get us off the dime. We still have a lot of people who need jobs, and we need to do a better job creating and maintaining jobs.
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. Peoples: We are at the point now that we need to ensure that our arterials are passable. If we can get some bonds passed, that’s what we need to do. Our economy relies on those roads, and so do our citizens.
Do we need to get “more bang for our buck” and maximize efficiencies? Of course we do – we have been doing that for years. But there are arterials and major collectors that are in dire shape. We need to get those roads fixed.
Rep. Theriault: The committee needs to look at what MaineDOT presents in terms of their prioritization legislation they have been working on. Let’s look at what the most immediate needs are, let’s discuss funding, and we will take it from there.
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. Peoples: Yes, we tried to do that. We are in the fourth year of the four-year Transcap bridge program. Do we need to do more? Absolutely. All you have to do is look at the bridge in front of the mill in Westbrook – three big chunks of the bridge fell out last year – President Obama even mentioned it in one of his speeches. That is a big deal for us. That is a major bridge; it turns into River Road and goes into North Windham where there is a lot of traffic. There are other bridges like this in Maine, and we need to fix them for the safety of our citizens and for commerce.
Rep. Theriault: Yes, it has to be, simply because of the information we are getting in terms of having major needs in the bridge areas. I know that first-hand because of the bridge between Madawaska and Edmonston that has to be replaced to modern day standards. The border stations are one of the main players regarding where the location of a new bridge might be. We must work with the community, the federal and Canadian governments and all the stakeholders to figure out where it should go.
Maine Trails: If you could request the federal government to fund one transportation project in Maine, what project would that be?
Rep. Peoples: The bridges connecting Kittery and Portsmouth – those are high on the list of needs. Those are our lifelines.
Rep. Theriault: The International Bridge in Madawaska.
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. Peoples: I think that it would be a good idea – as a transitional method – to look at the way we tax commodities. What we need to do in the long-term is look at a sales tax – it would be a tough pill to swallow right now – but we should look at the excise portion of the gas tax and change that to a straight sales tax in order to flatten out the volatility.
Rep. Theriault: The fuel tax does not keep up with the needs, but it is one tool in the toolbox as a way to fund our system. However, the need is much greater, so we have to look at other funding methods. There should be a set amount coming from the General Fund each year, and we need to keep the gas tax, as well. We are way behind, but it is going to take a comprehensive picture of the needs before we decide what we need to spend.
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. Peoples: Yes, I think we have to be encouraging public-private partnerships to enhance rail. The shippers, or folks who want to use the system, have some skin in the game. We also need to be more committed to it. We have multiple-use transportation corridors – there is enough there to make everybody happy.
Rep. Theriault: I was a strong supporter of the Montreal Maine & Atlantic rail service – to ensure the northern Maine service stayed afloat. In fact, I sponsored that legislation. As we speak today, there has been an increase in the rail service since the state stepped in and a new company took over. It was the right thing to do, and the employees are much happier than they were before. Happier employees make for more productive employees. These are people who have good jobs and are committed to providing the best possible rail service for northern Maine.
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?
Rep. Peoples: We have bandaged River Road, so that’s good. There are segments of Route 2 over Wytopitlock [in Aroostook County] that need some major work – so that would be my entry.
Rep Theriault: Right now, Route 162 [in Aroostook County] starting at the town of St. Agatha going towards Long Lake, into Sinclair and leading to Route 161.