The freshman class
MBTA’s Maria Fuentes talks about transportation with six Maine House members – all freshmen on the legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Transportation.
Maria Fuentes: This is your first term on the Transportation Committee. Did you ask to be on this committee, and if so, why did you want to serve on Transportation?
Representative McLean: Yes, I did ask to be on the committee. I have a master’s in public policy, with transportation as an interest area. There is a direct correlation between transportation projects and economic development, and I don’t mean just roads. Reducing congestion, enhancing our quality of place, moving freight more efficiently – these are all part of improving our economy. For example, if we want to reduce congestion and reduce the cost of repairing our system, we need to take a wholesale look at the costs of moving goods and people. This is a great committee to be on, with good people to work with.
Representative Nutting: I asked to serve on the Transportation Committee. This is my seventh term in the House and I have served on a number of committees. I asked to serve on Transportation because it deals with issues that are important to the everyday lives of Maine citizens and, because it operates with its own separate budget, it is a unique part of Maine government.
Representative Powers: This was one of my three committee choices, more from urging of my constituents than my own personal choice. I have enjoyed this committee assignment immensely.
Representative Turner: Ask may not be a strong enough word. I fought to be on this committee. District 11 encompasses a major portion of eastern Maine, and transportation is vital to its economic well-being.
Representative Verow: Yes, I did want to be on this committee, because of some transportation projects in my district that are of particular interest. A primary one is the extension of I-395 from Brewer to Route 9. Now that the larger trucks can go on the interstate, they get slowed down when they come to Brewer. A bypass would create an efficient shortcut and would steer the trucks away from Main Street. It is also important to the town of Holden. It makes much more sense to have the trucks go on the roads that were designed to carry them, than it is to have them go through downtowns. I am also interested in returning passenger rail service to Bangor. Until the 1950’s, you could take a train from Bangor to Boston. With the extension of the Downeaster to Freeport and Brunswick, it makes it more feasible to continue north. I would like to call for a planning study to answer questions about how we can, incrementally, continue to bring passenger rail northward. Let’s talk about it. I have heard from many constituents who are very interested in using passenger rail.
Representative Werts: I did ask to be on this committee because I felt there were many things that could benefit my community that would be dealt with by this committee. I was not disappointed, but I wish we could have done more.
Maria Fuentes: When your constituents talk to you about transportation, what do they most often talk about?
Representative McLean: Mostly about roads. More recently, I have heard from constituents about safety, due to the Lac Megantic tragedy. Not everyone is familiar with how our transportation infrastructure is funded and how expensive it is to maintain our roads and bridges. They just know that they are driving over potholes. I have been talking to constituents and trying to help educate them about our funding stream and why it is so important that we look at alternative funding mechanisms. They know they are paying taxes, but it is helpful to provide them with some context about what the needs are and where the money goes.
Representative Nutting: They talk about the poor condition of their roads and especially about railroad crossings that are in dire need of repair. If they have recently had improvements done on roads near them, they like to mention that as well.
Representative Powers: They talk about the most significant infrastructure concerns in my district.
Representative Turner: Roads, or more correctly, the condition of the roads.
Representative Verow: Typically, my constituents talk to me about the condition of the highways. I hear positive feedback on roads that have been improved, but there are others that need work. Route 2 from Bangor to Hermon is one that comes to mind.
Representative Werts: Roads and bridges always come up, but there are also questions around why we do not have commuter rail and passenger rail through here.
Maria Fuentes: The Maine Legislature identified 19 percent of all public roads as the highest priority roads because they carry 70 percent of all traffic. Of those, 1,472 miles or 34 percent are in poor or unacceptable condition. The Maine Legislature agreed to bring these roads up to at least fair condition. What would be a reasonable time frame for meeting this commitment?
Representative McLean: It really depends on the will of the elected officials. There is currently a lack of willingness to invest in public infrastructure, whether we talk about the fuel tax, or overhauling the tax system. It depends on how quickly the Legislature deems it a priority. If the Transportation Committee had its way, we would want to do it quickly. Because it is important not only to the economy, but also for citizen’s safety and for moving freight. Those who hear day in and day out that our roads and bridges are crumbling need to make the case to our constituents and legislators about why this needs to be a top priority for our state.
Representative Nutting: I defer to the plans laid out by the Department of Transportation (DOT).
Representative Powers: Even after one term on this committee, I have no idea what is a reasonable time frame. I will listen to the experts on their recommendations.
Representative Turner: We need to continue to work on this goal each budgetary cycle so that we can make sure that we accomplish this in the shortest time that is fiscally prudent.
Representative Verow: We do need to bring our roads up to fair condition. We all use the roads, motorcycles, cars, bikes, buses . . . we need to bring them to satisfactory condition to satisfy the traveling public.
Representative Werts: The best answer I have is “as soon as possible.” Obviously the department would have to give us that answer when they see how much we can support through funding.
Maria Fuentes: According to national statistics, the performance of Maine’s state highway system has slipped from 15th in the nation to 32nd in the last decade. One in every six Maine bridges is considered structurally deficient. MaineDOT says they need another $110 million a year in capital funding to reverse these statistics. Where should this funding come from?
Representative McLean: We really need to overhaul the way we fund roads and bridges. We should export some of the costs to our many visitors, since they use the system. Many other states find ways to do that. Let’s look at what other states are doing. I don’t have one specific solution, but it will certainly take a concerted effort, a fresh look and a new approach.
Representative Nutting: See answer to the next question.
Representative Powers: I firmly believe the legislature and the transportation committee should be reviewing options of increasing revenues for the DOT.
Representative Turner: During these tough times raising the fuel tax would only put more of a burden on the people of this state. We need to look at the total budgetary spending and allocate state money to where it is needed the most!
Representative Verow: We really need to have a healthy debate on how to fund our transportation network. Should it come from the fuel tax? Should the state look at indexing again? I know some states are looking at VMT (Vehicle Miles Travelled). I would like to explore in more detail how exactly that would work. However, we should also be encouraging conservation, and more carpooling.
Representative Werts: We should be looking at every revenue stream available to us. This is just not acceptable and needs to be addressed.
Maria Fuentes: Federal fuel taxes have not been raised since 1993, and the Federal Highway Trust Fund is no longer self-sufficient. One underlying issue is whether it is best to support transportation with user fees or rely on general funds. What is your philosophy on this issue?
Representative McLean: I think we need to do both. We definitely need to get funding from users, whether through a toll, excise tax or another form. But our roads and bridges are a public investment. Whether or not I drive on every road in the state is irrelevant. We all benefit from good roads everywhere in our state because we don’t live in a vacuum. We need the state to invest in the public enterprise but also need those who use the roads heavily to share that burden.
Representative Nutting: I think that support for transportation needs to come from a mix of user fees and general funds. Certainly those who use our infrastructure more should pay more, but everyone benefits from transportation improvements. Virtually everything we consume is transported to its final point of use.
Representative Powers: Given the significant needs for Maine's infrastructure, I believe we must rely more heavily on fees.
Representative Turner: Same as the previous question.
Representative Verow: I believe user fees are the way to go, because the General Fund has many responsibilities, and it is hard to have that fund also be responsible for highways and bridges.
Representative Werts: Obviously. I would like to see the federal taxes increased, but that is not likely to happen. So we are left with what we have until we design another strategy.
Maria Fuentes: Did you support sending a transportation bond to the voters to fund highways, bridges, ports, buses, airports, rail and trails?
Representative McLean: Yes.
Representative Nutting: I support the bond issue that will appear on the ballot this November. It is part of the overall plan to maintain and improve our roads. I would like to see the budget increased gradually so that, at some point in the future, the needs would be met in the transportation budget without the need for bonding.
Representative Powers: I do support sending bonds to the voters.
Representative Turner: Yes, I believe in bonding for large capital projects.
Representative Verow: Yes!
Representative Werts: Absolutely, the voters have supported taking care of our transportation needs as they know they are important.
Maria Fuentes: Maine’s gas tax is set at 31.5 cents per gallon. A pickup truck getting 15 miles per gallon pays 2.1 cents to travel a mile, but a Prius getting 45 miles per gallon pays one-third that amount to travel a mile. How would you address this growing inequity built into the current motor fuel tax?
Representative McLean: This is tough because, as a matter of public policy, I do not want to disincentivize good purchases, such as the purchase of a fuel-efficient vehicle. The challenge is to incentivize the purchase, but at the same time be sure they pay their fair share. I am not sure how to do that at this point, but I look forward to working with experts in the field over the coming year to develop a strategy to make a fair and equitable system to pay for our transportation needs.
Representative Nutting: We need a study to look at ways to address future transportation funding. While technology exists that could allow additional charges to vehicles that get better gas mileage, the solution needs to be well vetted and ultimately something that most Mainers think is fair. This is a difficult issue and one that requires a lot of input and discussion. That is why I suggest that we need a study.
Representative Powers: I have no answers to this difficult question. We discussed this issue at length in committee meetings, and, clearly, much more discussion is required to reach an acceptable solution.
Representative Turner: If there were an easy answer to this question, it would already be solved. I look forward to working with the committee, DOT and all stake holders.
Representative Verow: I am not sure how to address that. It is difficult to penalize people who are trying to do the right thing by lowering their consumption. We want to encourage people to use less oil.
Representative Werts:It is hard to punish a Prius owner for using a 45- mile-per-gallon vehicle when that’s what we are asking them to do. I have read some interesting information on Vermont concerning gas tax and sales tax that I think we should explore. We have got to come up with other ways to fund the highway fund other than the gas tax.
Maria Fuentes: The 125th Maine Legislature repealed motor fuel tax indexing. While income and sales taxes grow with inflation now the motor fuel tax will not. Should this decision be revisited?
Representative McLean: While I wasn’t here when indexing was taken out of the equation, I do know that increasing the gas tax alone is not the answer. Again, what we do need to look at is the whole picture. We need to take a larger look at costs, needs, who’s using the system, who’s not paying enough, etc., in the context of a broader policy discussion.
Representative Nutting: The repeal of indexing was the correct thing to do. Politicians should be willing to present their case for any increases in the fuel tax and take the heat or the credit for doing so. Automatic increases allow politicians to simply shrug their shoulders and say “What could I do? It was automatic. That’s the law.” We should take responsibility for our actions and let the voters decide if we did the right thing.
Representative Powers: Yes.
Representative Turner: Not at this time.
Representative Verow: I think it merits discussion. We should revisit the issue, and see whether it makes sense or not at this time.
Representative Werts: We should revisit it, yes.
Maria Fuentes: As we negotiate with New Hampshire over sharing the cost of bridge construction between our two states, do you think we should ask New Hampshire to pay for the cost of their residents using the Downeaster that Maine is presently financing?
Representative McLean: Yes, I think they should pay for part of it.
Representative Nutting: Absolutely. New Hampshire should be frequently reminded that they are not paying what they should. Short of not stopping at their stations, which I understand is not a viable solution, all we can do is appeal to their sense of fairness . . . frequently.
Representative Powers: Yes.
Representative Turner: Yes, I believe that New Hampshire residents should pay a proportional amount of the cost.
Representative Verow: Yes, definitely.
Representative Werts: Yes.
Maria Fuentes: Maine made a major investment in saving freight rail service to Aroostook by entering into a public-private partnership. Are you encouraged with the results of this partnership so far?
Representative McLean: I understand that there is a significant increase in rail traffic, which is good for business and good for roads and bridges. We need to preserve and improve our rail lines, as they take some of the stress off of the rest of the system. Investment in freight rail is definitely a great investment. This was an especially good investment for Aroostook County and northern Maine. They have seen an uptick in traffic, and anything that we can do to support business in northern Maine while, at the same time, taking stress off of our roads and bridges is a good idea.
Representative Nutting: I am encouraged, and I understand that it means a great deal to the businesses located along that route. I was not in favor of the plan originally, but I hear that it is working well. At some point, we need to review what we have invested and the results that we have seen, because we may be asked to authorize similar investments in the future.
Representative Powers: At this time, yes. But I believe we must proceed with caution regarding public-private partnerships.
Representative Turner: Yes, for economic development we need all types of transportation.
Representative Verow: Yes, I am very much encouraged. Irving just opened a mill in Ashland, in part because of the rail line. That’s why rail is so important – it offers more options for businesses and for travelers. We also need to get rail to Eastport, so that we can get full use of the Port of Eastport.
Representative Werts: Being new to the committee I have not had a lot of exposure to this, but I have listened to other legislators who are pleased with it.
Maria Fuentes: Beyond highway investments what are your priorities for improving passenger and freight transportation?
Representative McLean: We need to encourage businesses to use rail more. There are lots of rail lines needing drastic improvements. Many are privately owned and we need to figure out how to best work with the rail lines to improve efficiency and speed to get businesses to use the services. The Downeaster has learned from this model. There is a great deal of economic development in Biddeford Saco and Old Orchard Beach that has happened as a result of the Downeaster. Certainly, passenger rail is more difficult, especially in rural areas, but we should look at the Downeaster as a model, and a very successful one at that.
Representative Nutting: We should continue to look at how rail and our ports can improve our transportation needs while understanding that, for the foreseeable future, our roads and bridges are the most important means of transporting both freight and people.
Representative Powers: I strongly believe it is time to explore improving public transportation opportunities in Maine.
Representative Turner: We need a plan to develop all types of transportation so they work in concert – not competing – with each other.
Representative Verow: We should be improving our rail beds, and encouraging more rail transportation. We should have a plan, approach it methodically, and do it well.
Representative Werts: Getting passenger rail north of Portland and partnering with Canada, if possible.
Maria Fuentes: What is the one transportation project in your district you would most like to see completed? Why?
Representative McLean: The continued reduction of traffic in Gorham Village. We’ve seen a dramatic improvement in the village with the new Gorham Bypass, but we still have a ways to go.
Representative Nutting: The pipeline for natural gas is going right through my district, and it is important that the roads be repaired after the pipeline is finished.
Representative Powers: Route 11 is a significant commuter route for the constituents in all three of my towns. It is deteriorating at a rapid rate and is not up to the task of carrying so many vehicles and particularly so many commercial vehicles.
Representative Turner: I believe we need to continue to maintain and improve Route 6. It is a vital artery in District 11.
Representative Verow: The I-395 connector to Route 9. But we need to make sure we do it right.
Representative Werts: Beyond roads, bridges and the airport, passenger rail.
Maria Fuentes: If you could change one thing about the legislative process, what would it be? What do you find most rewarding about serving in the Maine Legislature?
Representative McLean: I do wish the legislative process were more efficient, but serving here is such a privilege. It is just an incredible opportunity to work with others on important issues that affect our state.
Representative Nutting: The most frustrating thing about the Maine Legislature (and the thing that I would change if I could) is the amount of time that we spend in Augusta. One would think that, with better planning, there would be less down time and therefore more time to spend back in our districts. There is no easy solution, but we should keep working on it. The most rewarding part of being a legislator, is being able to connect with people in my district who have questions about or need help with some part of state government. On a personal note, there are very few jobs that allow someone to work beside almost 200 people from all over the state who are trying to make Maine a better place to live and work.
Representative Powers: I don't have much time or money, and we waste much of both in the legislature. Any improvements to that end would be appreciated. I am honored to have met so many wonderful people who love Maine and are working hard to ensure it remains a great state.
Representative Turner: I would like to see better organization in the legislature. Most rewarding is being able to help so many people in my district and across the state.
Representative Verow: I enjoy the legislative process. It is laid out in such a way that there are checks and balances between the House and the Senate, between the legislature and the governor’s office, and there are ample opportunities for discussion and for amending policy. I have been very impressed with the many smart people who are elected to the Legislature. Regardless of their party or where they come from, they really care about what they are doing. Nobody is here for the money. In both parties, I haven’t yet met anyone I don’t like; instead I have met a lot of hard-working Maine people. I find the work challenging and enjoyable.
Representative Werts: I would love to see the partisanship go away, but that won’t happen anytime soon. What has been most rewarding is the communication I’ve received from constituents about what, if any, progress we have made.
Maria Fuentes: What accomplishment are you most proud of this session? What priority issues might you urge the committee to take up next year?
Representative McLean: I was very encouraged by the work of the Joint Select Committee on Workforce Development, looking ahead at our community college system, job training, how we can help people get the skills they need for the jobs that are available. Those were really solid things, and the legislation was a great display of bi-partisanship.
On the other hand, I was disappointed in the health care debate, in that over 70,000 hard working Mainers were denied coverage. I hope that the Legislature will realize next year how important this is for our economy and working families in Maine. Next year I hope we can find a way to increase funding for transportation. I am also interested in moving forward with Representative Treat’s bill on elder transportation issues; I believe there are many opportunities there to help people out.
Representative Nutting: The Transportation Committee worked well together and, for the most part, put partisan politics aside. We had a great mix of newcomers and veterans on the committee. The budget that we passed unanimously out of committee was thoroughly gone over and one which citizens should be pleased with as it gets the job done within existing resources.
Representative Powers: I am proud that we were able to come together and pass a budget given the contentious atmosphere. I do wish we had done more to improve the needs of our citizens. I believe a priority would be in seeking increased funding for the MaineDOT.
Representative Turner: Paying off the debt that was owed to Maine’s hospitals and also that we passed a transportation budget that will not just maintain but improve our transportation system. We need to continue to find cost savings and better methods to use with our limited budget.
Representative Verow: I am personally very pleased we got a unanimous vote on the Highway Fund budget in our committee. I hope that next year we can delve deeper into the funding coming into the Highway Fund. We need time to discuss the state’s many needs, and to prioritize and see what the best direction to go in is.
Representative Werts: I am proud we managed to get the budget passed although lacking greatly and we at least got passed a possible search for funds to provide an assessment for passenger rail north of Portland.