MBTA Funding Task Force seeks to capture public, legislative support
By Kathryn Buxton
How do you build a grassroots effort? One that will take transportation funding from the backburner to prominence in Augusta? That has been the chief item on the agenda of the MBTA Funding Task Force, a group formed by the MBTA Board of Directors during the summer of 2012.
“It all came from a discussion that started at the June board meeting in Eastport,” recalled MBTA Executive Director Maria Fuentes. “Members of the board were talking about the upcoming bond referendum and its prospects for passage by Maine voters. Board member and MBTA Vice President Tom Gorrill asked the big question: ‘Are we just preaching to the choir here?’”
That started board members thinking that perhaps it was time to take the debate about transportation funding back to its grassroots and build local support from the ground up for increasing state funding for essential infrastructure – roads, bridges, transit, ports and rail.
“There is a growing frustration about partisanship and how it is stifling progress on key issues, not just here in Maine, but across the country,” said Gorrill. “We need people and support behind us if we’re going to solve this stalemate that is really hurting our state.”
Fast-forward to spring 2013, and the MBTA Task Force on Funding has set in motion a strategy for taking the issue of Maine’s transportation funding crisis to Maine’s main streets.
According to MBTA President Doug Hermann, the Funding Task Force started with a basic truth: Maine voters overwhelmingly support transportation investments. “That much was obvious to us with the results of the 2012 bond referendum. The transportation bond received more public support than any other candidate or issue on the ballot,” said Hermann. On November 6, despite a constant stream of anti-borrowing rhetoric that has dominated the local and national news over the past two years, Question 4, the $51.5 million transportation bond, passed handily with 73 percent of the vote.
“The bond passing by the largest margin of any transportation bond in the past decade was a turning point in the work of the task force,” said Hermann. “That showed us the message about investment creating jobs and improving safety and the quality of life for Mainers really hits home.”
The “yes” vote planted an idea among task force members, said Hermann. “The question became, ‘What if we could muster that level of support in a more concerted, longer-term effort to solve the funding impasse?’”
Driving Mainers to vote for a much-needed transportation bond during a hotly contested presidential election is one thing. Fuentes said the task force is well aware that a wholly different kind of effort will be needed to stir up a sustained, grassroots effort to find a long-term funding solution for Maine’s beleaguered transportation network.
“The task force members feel that, while we have been chipping away at the edges of this issue for a long time and have the support of many key organizations, such as the Maine State Chamber, we need a more fundamental shift,” said Hermann.
Gorrill, the instigator of the task force, agrees. “This problem is bigger than just us. We need to have people working on this on the local level and demanding results from their elected officials, if we’re ever going to see movement.” The group also has said it plans to partner with other organizations that care about transportation infrastructure, such as the Maine Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers, ACEC Maine and AGC Maine.
To help come up with a plan, the task force invited MBTA legislative consultant John Melrose of the Eaton Peabody Consulting Group to develop a proposal for research. The goal is to identify specific transportation projects that will resonate among citizens and serve as a catalyst for a grassroots effort to build a 21st century transportation system that will help improve mobility and safety and, ultimately, spur economic development. MBTA will analyze what the $150 million per year annual funding gap means for communities throughout the state. The research will look at infrastructure projects in different areas that will require additional funding in order to be completed.
“Just saying that there is a $150 million funding gap is abstract and hard to grasp,” said Gorrill. “We need to make the gap real for people so they can see exactly what is not getting done in their communities and how it affects their every day lives – from dangerous intersections and deficient bridges to posted roads and potholes.”
Both Gorrill and Fuentes admit that creating momentum for a long-term effort will be a challenge. They said the task force nevertheless believes that it is efforts like this that are at the heart of MBTA’s mission.
“This is what the MBTA stands for, and to do it well, we will need to be the catalyst,” said Hermann. “An effort like this takes research, and it takes a small army committed to the cause and willing to meet with local decision makers.
That could take a significant investment on the part of our organization and others who are committed to seeing this through.”
FMI: Watch for updates on the MBTA Funding Task Force’s work in the Hot Topic section on the MBTA web site, www.MBTAonline.org.