Maine Trails, December - January '14
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10 in '13

In 2013, transportation made waves – and headlines. Here’s a look back at the Top 10 transportation stories for the year.

 
1. The bond saga, part 1
 
The transportation year got off to a strong start when Maine Governor Paul LePage proposed a $100 million bond in January. That was only one of several significant transportation bond proposals under consideration during the first session of the 126th Maine Legislature. Unfortunately, the bill he introduced and several others, became victims of the perennial back and forth state funding priorities, including Maine’s debt to hospitals. By session’s end in early July, legislators still had not taken up debate on a transportation bond. The session ended with legislative leadership vowing to address a bundle of bonds later.

2. The bond saga, part 2
 
How much later, was the real question, and the answer to that would prove a bit of a nail biter. Would leadership wait to call legislators back to the session in the fall to send a bond package to voters in June 2014? Or could the engines of government ramp up over the summer break? Faced with waiting, and having to put off more than 100 highway and bridge projects that were critical to MaineDOT’s current work plan, the legislature met in late August and quickly debated and passed a package of five different bond proposals totaling $149.5 million. At $100 million, transportation claimed the lion’s share of the bonds that would go to voters, funding that would create or support more than 1,400 jobs and generate approximately $154 million in federal, local and private matching funds. The bond package was passed just in time to get onto the November 5th ballot – a feat some labeled “The November Surprise.” Without the bond, MaineDOT’s work plan “would have been largely devoid of any capital investment,” noted MBTA Executive Director Maria Fuentes at the time. “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.”
 
MBTA president Tom Gorrill said that in discussions with state legislators leading up to the vote, “there was recognition [among elected officials] of how important a transportation bond would be to the economy” in a state that really depends on its roads, rail and ports. “We were all thrilled when the bond was sent to voters,” said Gorrill, speaking of the MBTA board of directors’ reaction to the passage of the bond package.

3. A happy ending
 
Maine Trails is pleased to report that the bond saga came to a happy ending. MBTA worked with the Maine State Chamber, AGC Maine, Maine Section ASCE and ACEC of Maine and many others who threw their efforts behind the bond passage that includes funding for roads ($49 million), bridges ($27 million) and multimodal ($24 million). In the days leading up to the election, members rounded up support for the YES on Question 3 Coalition and took prominent roles in Portland and Hampden press conferences. They also spread the word among friends, family and co-workers and wrote editorials and letters to the editor that appeared in all of the major newspapers.
 
That hard work paid off, and Maine voters affirmed their support for transportation, passing Question 3 with a 72 percent YES vote. It was the strongest show of support for transportation funding since 2007.
 
 “There was a feeling this year that Maine needed these investments, to fix our roads and to fix our economy,” said MBTA President Tom Gorrill. “MaineDOT was counting on this bond to keep its work plan on track, and frankly, it is a relief for everyone in the industry that it passed.”
 
4. Maine’s bridges 9th worst in nation
 
“This is not a good time to put Maine’s bridge program on hold,” said MBTA president Tom Gorrill last summer, right around the time the Maine Legislature adjourned without voting to send a transportation bond to voters. The bond passed, but for the time being, Maine bridges still rank ninth worst in the nation, according to the latest report put out by Transportation for America.
 
In fact, Maine has slipped in Transportation for America’s rankings, going from 12th to 9th since other states have been able to make more headway in efforts to replace or repair deficient bridges.
 
There are 356 structurally deficient bridges in Maine, including 58 fracture-critical steel truss bridges similar in design to a Washington state bridge that collapsed during the evening rush hour this past May. Maine has been able to reduce its inventory of deficient bridges, including rehabilitating or replacing several extraordinary bridges.
 
Much more needs to be done. Deferring maintenance of bridges and highways can cost three times as much as preventative repairs. The backlog also increases safety risks, hinders economic prosperity and significantly burdens taxpayers. Even with passage of the transportation bond, MaineDOT estimates it should be spending an additional $19 million on its bridges annually to meet state bridge needs.
 
Still, Maine is not alone, and as a country, the United States’ infrastructure remains sorely underfunded.
 
“We spend about three to four percent of our gross national product [on roads and bridges,” CPM Constructors’ Peter Krakoff told Maine Trails in June. “In Europe they spend five percent…In China, it’s seven or eight percent...”

5. The Icelanders have landed
 
Last winter, Eimskip, the Icelandic shipping company, announced it would move its existing container service hub from Norfolk, Virginia to Portland. Reason? To cut its shipping time to northern Europe. In March, the company followed through, and the first container ship sailed into port. Eimskip estimates it will ship approximately 5,000 containers annually with biweekly service to the port.
 
All this has been good news for the port of Portland, which many hope is poised for a freight boom. If Maine’s deep water ports rebound from the recession, and that seems to be the trend, it will be in large part due to prudent public investments made in the port’s infrastructure.
 
The state and federal government has invested more than $5 million in the port of Portland infrastructure during the past two years – investments that were credited with helping Eimskip to make the move.
 
The port will receive another $9 million from the recently passed transportation bond to expand freight capabilities and extend a rail connection to the International Marine Terminal where Eimskip docks. This is expected to encourage more manufacturers to ship Maine goods to European markets. To help things along, the state recently established a special office to promote more trade opportunities with Europe.
 
6. It’s a breeze
 
The Maine Turnpike Authority in April introduced its first open road tolling (ORT) facility at the mainline toll barrier in New Gloucester. The new toll plaza allows travelers with E-ZPass devices to pay tolls there without stopping. 
 
Many Mainers are hoping this is the beginning of a new generation of electronic tolling. But there’s still work to be done. MTA Executive Director Peter Mills said there would need to be a re-evaluation of the York toll plaza and other locations that would include close scrutiny of the return on investment of ORT and other options. When the agency does begin construction on a new mainline ORT facility, Mills told Maine Trails, it would be at a location that fulfills criteria for safety – a long straightway with no curves or bridges to obstruct drivers’ views. And when the decision is made, the question of how much it would cost will come into play.
 
In the meantime, the Maine Turnpike Authority continues to explore alternatives and to see if the turnpike could build a structure with a smaller footprint at the York site. Walter Fagerlund of HNTB, senior technical advisor and project manager for both the New Gloucester ORT and system-wide toll replacement projects, said operating a toll system with the old technology while introducing new technology has been a challenge. All of which is an indication of just how big of a step the New Gloucester ORT plaza really was.
 
Should our leaders be thinking about sending the gas tax to pasture? Is it getting to be time for retirement? Most transportation pundits agree that full retirement, even after 81 years, is not an option. “My guess is that this is one birthday that we’ll continue to see year after year,” concluded Forbes contributor Brigham A. McCown who served as the federal government’s top motor carrier safety attorney for the trucking, bus and moving industries at the U.S. Department of Transportation.
 
The federal gas tax has remained steady at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993. In the meantime, cars have become more fuel efficient, meaning less money for roads and bridges. Yet the tax has not budged. Still, there might be some life kicking in the old tax. Just this December, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) introduced legislation that would increase the gas tax by 15 cents, matching a proposal that was included in the 2011 Simpson-Bowles budget reform recommendations.
 
7. Federal gas tax celebrates 81
 
Should our leaders be thinking about sending the gas tax to pasture? Is it getting to be time for retirement? Most transportation pundits agree that full retirement, even after 81 years, is not an option. “My guess is that this is one birthday that we’ll continue to see year after year,” concluded Forbes contributor Brigham A. McCown who served as the federal government’s top motor carrier safety attorney for the trucking, bus and moving industries at the U.S. Department of Transportation.
 
The federal gas tax has remained steady at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993. In the meantime, cars have become more fuel efficient, meaning less money for roads and bridges. Yet the tax has not budged. Still, there might be some life kicking in the old tax. Just this December, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) introduced legislation that would increase the gas tax by 15 cents, matching a proposal that was included in the 2011 Simpson-Bowles budget reform recommendations.
 
8. Aroostook rail success story
 
Maine Northern Railway (MNR) all but wrapped up work on its rehabilitation of Aroostook rail. In June, MNR completed an agreement to buy a 28-mile stretch of line between Van Buren and Madawaska from Montreal Maine & Atlantic. And by August, the company had nearly completed all of the $11.5 million in upgrades funded by a $10.5 million federal TIGER grant (transportation investment generating economic recovery) issued in 2011 and an additional $1 million invested by MNR’s parent company, Irving Transportation.
 
 “This has been a tremendous partnership at all levels,” said Ian Simpson of Irving, speaking at the MBTA Aroostook County Meeting in August. He was talking about contributions to the effort by both public (MaineDOT and US DOT) and private (Irving) sectors. With the TIGER grant, MNR has been able to replace 35 crossings and perform preventative maintenance including the replacement of more than 80,000 ties (30,000 more ties than originally planned) and almost 80,000 tons of rock ballast. In doing so, Simpson said that MNR had taken “some of the worst track in New England, made it some of the best track –and done a lot to get track speed up.” Speeds that had been limited to just 10 miles in many places on the line are now 25 mph on branch lines and 35 mph at Oakfield, thereby reducing shipping times, improving efficiency and attracting shippers.
 
9. A long to-do list
 
Maine said goodbye to two transportation greats this year: Carlton Day Reed and Harold Bouchard.
 
Reed, the former president and chairman of Reed & Reed, was also known for his accomplishments serving in the Maine legislature. A Democrat, he served in both chambers, including as President of the Maine Senate and was known for working well with others. He was most proud of passing legislation to help clean up the state’s polluted rivers and his work with the Woolwich Historical Society to help preserve the area’s local history. After graduating from Colby College he joined his father in the family construction business as a partner. Reed was a driving force in the company, helping to establish Reed & Reed’s reputation for bridge building. Descended from three prominent seafaring Maine families – the Reeds, the Days and the Carltons – he and his wife Betty had a penchant for travel and visited six continents over the years. “He believed in miracles, and he lived his life like that,” said his son, Tom. “He never gave up, no matter what he was doing.”
 
A French-speaking native of Aroostook County, Harold O. Bouchard loved trucks and heavy equipment and, as he told Maine Trails in 2008, “always had a desire for wheels.”
 
When he left the family farm in his truck, he’d said he was brought up to earn a living and he’d discovered that poverty was “a great asset.” Bouchard hauled materials and goods that were the bedrock of the state’s economy and his company became one of the principal trucking firms for Great Northern Paper Co.
 
The company also shipped black oil to the mills for Sprague Energy and, in the early 1990s, began hauling liquid asphalt for Roland Fogg at Barrett Paving Materials. By the time he stepped down as the company president in 2005, the company had grown from a single truck and Harold to a fleet of 75 and 130 employees. Today the company employs 175 between H.O. Bouchard Inc. and Comstock Woodlands and operates 100 trucks and is still very much a family-owned company with Harold’s son Brian at the helm and grandson Jeff serving as vice president.
 
10. A long to-do list
 
This fall, TRIP, a national nonprofit transportation research group based in Washington, D.C. released a new report identifying Maine’s 50 most pressing transportation challenges and the fixes needed to address them. It also called for increased public spending to support a transportation system that “can accommodate the mobility demands of a modern society.”
 
Included were 12 sections of major roads or highways that need significant repairs or reconstruction; 19 major bridges that have significant deficiencies and need to be rebuilt or reconstructed; one improvement to a maritime facility; and 18 sections of the state’s transportation system that need improvements to address multiple challenges by improving safety, increasing access or improving road of bridge conditions. The top five challenges were: reconstruction of a portion of Route 3 in Bar Harbor; replacement of Union Street Bridge in Bangor; reconstruction of a portion of Route 302 in the Portland area; replacement of Pine Point Crossing Bridge in Scarborough; and replacement of Bar Mills Bridge from Buxton to Hollis.
 
At a press conference announcing the release of the list, Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said: ”Transportation is truly the backbone of Maine’s economy. It supports our traditional, natural resources-based industries related to farming, forestry and manufacturing, but it is key to continuing the growth and expansion of tourism, our largest industry.”
 

 

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