After the Maine Legislature adjourned without debating bonds, many believed Mainers wouldn’t have the chance to weigh in on a transportation bond this fall. They were wrong, and now it is up to Maine voters.
When the Maine Legislative session ended in June without passing a transportation bond, it looked as if the MaineDOT 2013-2014 work plan was going to take a very big hit – a $100 million hit, to be exact.
That was the amount of the bond that Governor Paul LePage had proposed earlier in the year and which remained sidelined in the Appropriations Committee along with several other bond proposals submitted by members of the legislature at the beginning of the 126th Maine Legislature. At issue was a difference of opinion between the governor and legislative leadership about how much and what kinds of things Maine should be bonding.
But after weeks of often heated debate, the governor and leaders reached a compromise during the waning days of summer, and on August 29, the legislature gathered for a special session. The entire bond package – five bonds totaling $149.5 million – was passed with more than the two-thirds votes required in each chamber. The $100 million transportation bond represents the largest of five bonds that will be on the November 5 ballot in Maine.
MaineDOT Deputy Commissioner Bruce Van Note was quick to note that the size the bond, as well as the level of support it received in both houses, is a testament to the strong support transportation investments have and the power of transportation as a non-partisan issue to bring elected officials together.
“There were only seven negative votes in the House and no negative votes in the Senate,” said Van Note. “Transportation traditionally has received very wide bipartisan support. Everyone knows that they need good roads and bridges.”
“We were all thrilled when the bond was sent to voters,” said MBTA President Tom Gorrill, speaking of the MBTA board of directors’ reaction to what some have referred to as “the November surprise.” He said that he and other transportation advocates had become resigned to the fact that Maine voters might have to wait till June for a voter decision on bonds, despite broad support from all ranges of the political spectrum. Gorrill said he had spoken with several legislators on both sides of the aisle at the MBTA Aroostook County in early August, and all of them had expressed their strong support for the bond.
“There was recognition of how important a transportation bond would be to the economy of a rural state like Maine that really depends on its roads and the important jobs that maintaining those roads supports,” said Gorrill. The $100 million bond has the potential to create or support 1,400 or more good paying jobs in the transportation and construction industries, a sector of the economy that has been hit particularly hard during the recent recession. Recovery in the industry has been slow. Construction unemployment this spring was as high as 26 percent in Maine, and still lags behind every other major industry category in the state.
When matching funds – estimated at $154 million in federal and other monies – are factored in, the bond has the potential to put more than twice that number of Mainers to work.
“We really need those jobs,” said Gorrill. He said his own firm, Gorrill-Palmer Consulting Engineers, experienced staff cutbacks at the height of the recession and since has been reluctant to hire new personnel, because the transportation funding outlook remains uncertain.
“This compromise bond really sends a message to businesses like ours that Maine’s economy could be seeing some improvements,” said Gorrill.
‘Transformative’ and essential
Before the legislative vote and when the future of the bond was still in limbo, one of the biggest concerns among transportation advocates was the effect on MaineDOT’s current work plan if a bond did not go to voters. In June, the department released a list of capital projects (63 highway and 58 bridge projects) in the work plan that were at risk if a $100 million bond was not passed. Those projects include a $7.4 million highway reconstruction project planned for a critical 5.9-mile section of Route 302 in western Cumberland County, a $14 million reconstruction of a section of Route 3 in Bar Harbor, the $4.2 million Somesville Bridge replacement on a high traffic route that connects Standish and Limington, and the $1.3 million replacement of the Meddybemps Bridge over the Dennys River on Route 191.
“Without the bond, this work plan would have been largely devoid of any capital investment,” said MBTA Executive Director Maria Fuentes. “The majority of these are bread-and-butter highway and bridge projects on priority corridors – capital projects that are the real guts of the plan and are essential for Mainers traveling back and forth to work and school every day.”
There were also projects that MaineDOT’s Van Note calls “transformative.” Chief among those are plans to expand the International Marine Terminal in Portland. The bond funding will extend a rail line to the terminal and enable the purchase of additional land to help the port capitalize on its recent success in convincing Icelandic shipper Eimskip to establish Portland as its North American base. Van Note said the state is hopeful it will be able to attract other shippers to the port, but sees the rail connectivity and expanded port capacity that the bond funding will provide as critical to continued port growth.
“Without the bond, we would never be able to go to the next level,” said Van Note.
Equally important, according to MBTA’s Fuentes, are bond allocations for SHIP (Small Harbor Improvement Program) and IRAP (Industrial Rail Access Program), two immensely popular and effective MaineDOT programs that for more than 10 years have sparked economic development in communities by encouraging local and private investments.
“In dollars, these are relatively modest investments on the part of MaineDOT. Still, these programs have the power to bring enormous benefits to the businesses and towns where they are located,” said Fuentes. “SHIP is all about revitalizing Maine’s waterfronts and IRAP extends rail to areas and shippers that otherwise would not have access to low-cost freight rail service. These are investments we need to be making.”
Both Fuentes and Van Note also mentioned the funds that will go to one of MaineDOT’ s newer partnership ventures, the Municipal Partnership Initiative (MPI), a matching fund program that promotes partnerships with municipalities, public utilities, private businesses and other entities. The bond has set aside an additional $5 million for this program that was established in 2011 and has generated approximately $17 million in public-private investments for state and state-aid highways – all with MaineDOT grants of $500,000 or less.
Fuentes characterizes the bond funding as “hardworking” with few frills and the potential to make a positive impact in communities throughout the state with programs like SHIP, IRAP and MPI and strategic investments in priority roads and bridges.
“MaineDOT’s work plan is very streamlined, and to make sure it gets done, we need to pass this bond,” said Fuentes. “It will be very important for MBTA members to help drum up support for the bond. Voters need to know that this funding is important to maintaining Maine’s transportation network and keeping our roads and bridges safe.”
What is in Question 3: The Transportation Bond?
Highways – $44 million
Provides funds to construct, reconstruct or rehabilitate up to 63 different bondable highway projects in Priority 1, Priority 2 and Priority 3 corridors, including $5 million for the Municipal Road Partnership which provides matching funds for local partnership initiatives and the Secondary Road Program Fund.
Bridges - $27 million
Provides funds to replace and rehabilitate bridges, including funding for 58 bondable bridge projects currently included in the MaineDOT 2013-2014 work plan.
Multimodal - $24 million
Provides funds for facilities or equipment related to ports, harbors, marine transportation, aviation, freight and passenger railroads and transit that preserve public safety or otherwise have demonstrated high economic value for transportation, including property acquisition and capital improvements at the International Marine Terminal. MaineDOT’s tentative plan for use of the funds are as follows:
- International Marine Terminal: $9 million
Including property acquisition and extension of rail line to provide access to the terminal in order to reduce the cost of transportation of goods and services statewide.
- Portland Harbor Dredging and Fish Exchange: $4 million
To complete the dredging that will expand the bay’s shipping capacity and allow Maine to remain competitive. Also includes infrastructure upgrades to the Portland Fish Exchange.
- Other port and related intermodal improvements: $3 million
Marine-freight investments for land-side and marine improvements to coastal public marine facilities.
- Industrial Rail Access Program: $1.5 million
Funding for the successful public-private partnership program that encourages economic development with the expansion of rail access for commercial and industrial shippers.
- Passenger- Transit and rail: $4 million
Funding for Maine public transit and rail infrastructure that will qualify the state for available federal matching funds.
- Aviation: $1.5 million
Funding for Maine’s small airports that will qualify the state for federal matching funds.
- Small Harbor Improvement Program: $1 million
Funding for the popular matching grant program that promotes economic development, public access, improved commercial fishing opportunities and works to preserve, and create, infrastructure at facilities in tidewater and coastal municipalities.
What else is on the November 5 ballot?
On Tuesday, November 5, the transportation bond will share the ballot with four other bond questions including:
Question #1: $14 million for renovation of the state’s armories
Question #2: $15.5 million for building upgrades at state universities
Question #4: $4.5 million for a public-private partnership to build a new science facility at the Maine Maritime Academy
Question #5: $15.5 million to upgrade buildings, classrooms and laboratories at the seven campuses of the Maine Community College System