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One big challenge, three views
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One big challenge, three views

Legislative briefing provides perspectives on state transportation funding

The three speakers at Maine’s Transportation Challenge: A Legislative Briefing on April 2 at the Senator Inn brought three distinct perspectives to the issues facing Maine’s transportation industry. One perspective offered by MaineDOT showed steps the department is taking to cope with diminished funding levels. Another, provided by the Maine Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), offered a glimpse of roads and bridges that have seen little improvement over the past four years. The third view came from within the legislature itself and the barriers that exist to both short- and long-term efforts to fix Maine’s roads and bridges.
 
The event was sponsored by the Maine Better Transportation Association, in partnership with AGC Maine, ASCE Maine, and the American Council of Engineering Companies of Maine. More than 100 people attended the event, including over 40 legislators currently serving at the Maine State House.
 
The legislative challenge
 
The first view of Maine’s transportation challenge was offered by Senator Edward Mazurek (R-Knox County), chair of the Maine Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Transportation. He talked about what Maine needs – more jobs to help boost the state’s stagnating economy, as well as much needed investment in aging roads and bridges that form the backbone of the state’s transportation network. He spoke about the legislative challenges caused by voters, the legislature and the governor working at cross purposes, specifically Maine Governor Paul LePage holding back $113 million in voter approved transportation bonds.
 
“Maine has a $150 million gap between what is required to minimally maintain our roads and what we actually spend on our roads. This must change. And in fact, it can change…today,” said Chairman Mazurek. “One positive and meaningful step forward would be to release the bonds already approved by voters. Sitting and awaiting the governor’s ‘okay’ is $113 million dollars in funds that will fix our roads, strengthen our bridges.”
 
Mazurek said by not approving the bonds, the governor was holding up the state’s economic recovery, because that funding “would support 3,200 jobs in the construction industry, an industry where the unemployment rate hovers around 25 percent and where 10,000 Mainers are currently unemployed. Make no mistake; the governor has had, in some cases, over 700 days to release some of these bonds.”
 
The chair also talked about what is ahead for the legislature as the Transportation and Appropriations committees work out their final recommendations on several transportation bond proposals yet to be resolved. Those include a $100 million proposal put forward by the governor and a $120 million package Mazurek has sponsored.
 
The daily challenge
 
MaineDOT Commissioner David Bernhardt offered the Department of Transportation’s view of the state’s transportation challenge, one that he described as making do with limited funding resources. He spoke about the department’s new three-year work plan that relies on a new prioritization method based on highway corridor priorities and customer service levels that would allocate funding to areas that serve the greatest number of users.
 
“Our new strategic plan is different from our work plans of the past,” said Bernhardt. “It’s customer focused and about getting things done with our available resources.”
 
Bernhardt spoke of the work plan, which incorporates the performance measures implemented by the department over the past three years and focuses on “getting the work out on time.” That effort, he said, has been increasingly successful with MaineDOT achieving on-time completion of its projects at a rate of 78 percent the first year, 85 percent during the second and 89 percent during the department’s most recent year operating under performance measures – rates significantly higher than other states in northern New England, including New Hampshire (currently at 59 percent) and Vermont (49 percent).
 
“And we believe we will get better,” said Bernhardt. Achieving what the department has promised it would achieve, is a key step to building trust with the public. Goodwill for MaineDOT will be important as the department struggles with ever-tighter budgets. Bernhardt noted the new three-year plan, which represents $1.1 billion in spending over its duration, represents a 2.3 percent reduction in funding. He said MaineDOT is coping with those reductions by slimming its staffing levels – the department has eliminated 340 full-time positions in recent years – and relying on remaining staff to “do as much or more than we have ever done before.”
 
Bernhardt talked about a redoubled effort to earn the public trust that is echoed in the department’s mission statement displayed on the back of MaineDOT’s fleet of maintenance vehicles.
 
“Integrity, competence and service,” said Bernhardt. “It’s on the back of all of our vehicles.”
 
The long-term challenge
 
Will Haskell, president of the Maine Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers (Maine ASCE), addressed the long-term challenges facing Maine transportation. He put the challenge in context of the updated Maine Infrastructure Report Card recently issued by his organization. In that report, Maine’s roads received a dismal ranking of D, showing no improvement in the four years since the group issued its first report card.
 
Haskell noted that, while the report card also rated state bridges, railroads, ports, transit and airports, the lack of progress in improving state roads is particularly troubling.
 
“The big one is roads,” said Haskell. “A ‘D’ is not acceptable.”
 
He noted that every day, Maine’s roads get rougher and cost drivers more money – by latest estimate Mainers pay an extra $300 in car repairs and other costs due to bad roads. “That’s money out of everyone’s pockets and that doesn’t need to happen.”
 
It was the long-term challenge of fixing Maine’s roads and bridges that Senator Mazurek also brought attention to, including the need to find a sustainable way to fund infrastructure maintenance and repairs. In that light, he said he is sponsoring a bill that would form a commission to specifically look at the funding needs of our state’s infrastructure and to provide a report on how we can ensure adequate funding for our future.
 
Even Bernhardt, whose comments remained largely focused on MaineDOT’s current work plan, admitted that there were significant challenges facing his department because of uncertainty in the long-term transportation funding picture.
 
“We need to be looking ahead at 2015 when the federal Highway Trust Fund dries up,” said Bernhardt. He noted that among his colleagues, the most talked about proposals include either increasing the gas tax, expanding highway tolling or implementing a mileage user fee such as a VMT tax.
 
“We don’t have a silver bullet,” said Bernhardt. “But I do know we have to convince our customers that this need is real, and that is our most difficult job.”

 

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