Through the crystal ball
Transportation professionals imagine the future at 63rd Maine Transportation Conference
If the transportation professionals speaking at the 63rd Maine Transportation Conference, December 5 at the Augusta Civic Center, have any say in future matters, our Main Streets will beckon new residents and businesses to live and work downtown, our highways and bridges will be able to persevere through wind, water, snow and ice, and we will have sustainable transportation funding resources to keep Maine’s roads, bridges, rail, transit, ports and airports safe and efficient.
It was the latter topic – identifying a future source of transportation funding – that occupied the place of honor at the annual event’s policy discussions. The transportation funding deficit faced by states was one of the core issues addressed in Cynthia Burbank’s keynote speech, A Darwinian View of Transportation.
Burbank sees many factors contributing to that deficit: an increasing number of hybrid and electric vehicle users who are reducing the revenues generated by the gas tax; a generation of young drivers who are choosing to drive less; an aging demographic base in Maine and elsewhere; and a gas tax that has not kept pace with inflation and cost of living increases.
She also sees community leaders beginning the discussion of solutions – vehicle miles traveled user fees, shifting more of the funding burden to local and state governments and tolls among them. But she also sees a lack of political will to do anything about it. The great hope, she said, will be innovation on smaller scales – perhaps by states and municipalities - that have the power to solve future challenges of access and public mobility.
This year, once again, Governor Paul LePage offered welcoming remarks, and he, too, spoke of funding. His remarks focused on the current round of state transportation funding, particularly the $100 million in transportation bond funding passed by voters in November and another $130 million in bonds that had been in limbo while he and the Maine Legislature negotiated repayment of the state’s hospital debt. And he expressed his belief that by prudent investments and bringing business credentials and business practices to public government, good things will come to Maine such as the recent launch of Eimskip’s marine freight service connecting Maine and Europe. That was made possible by improvements made to Portland’s International Marine Terminal and considerable lobbying on the behalf of port officials and the state.
“I do believe that if we continue on the path we are on, we are going to be the benefactors,” said LePage addressing the nearly 600 transportation leaders gathered for the annual day of technical and policy discussions and networking.
The day-long event featured a range of future-oriented discussions. One panel looked at designing downtown streets and transportation networks to encourage business and attract new residents. There also was considerable talk of increasingly common extreme weather events and how to best prepare for them by building “sustainable” infrastructure and developing policies and procedures to keep motorists safe. One session took on utilizing technology to create “smart infrastructure” and increase efficiency. Another session looked at employing social media to improve communication in transportation.
There was also a glimpse into the future through the eyes of a new generation of transportation professionals, with student papers presented on traffic calming, the design of bicycle and pedestrian facilities, wrong-way driving and using recycled materials to enhance asphalt performance. (UMaine College of Engineering student Nicole Scott won first prize in the student paper competition for her research on wrong-way driving.)
Still, it was the talk of the future of transportation funding that ultimately brought down the house. James Whitty of the Oregon Department of Transportation and Joung Lee of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation headlined the Funding the Future panel. Lee offered a lively look at the impact of national politics on future transportation funding. Whitty gave a nuts-and-bolts view of Oregon’s innovative road usage/charge program and the long learning curve and several studies that promise to pay off as the state moves to implement a new, flexible VMT charge. It is hoped, he said, the VMT will eventually supplant the state’s outmoded gas tax. (Whitty was voted the winner of the MBTA’s Max Wilder Award for best presentation.)
After the evening speaker unexpectedly cancelled, conference organizers rebounded with a fun and candid session headlined by Maine’s past and present MaineDOT commissioners – David Bernhardt, John Melrose and George Campbell – skillfully moderated by MaineDOT Deputy Commissioner Bruce Van Note. The “informal” question-and-answer session yielded both insights and humor as the three commissioners compared notes on their years heading the state’s DOT.
FMI: The Maine Transportation Conference is co-sponsored by MBTA, MaineDOT and the Maine Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. For more information about the event, visit www.MBTAonline.org.
MaineDOT David H. Stevens Award
- John Byther, MaineDOT Northern Region Project Manager
FHWA Paul L. Lariviere Award
- John Byther, MaineDOT Northern Region Project Manager
Bridge Breaking Competition
UMaine College of Engineering Student Paper Awards*
- First: Nicole Scott, Wrong-Way Driving
- Second: Kody Price, Recycled Materials as Asphalt Additives
- Runners Up: Lindsey Kandiko, Designing Bicycle and Pedestrian Facilities for a Healthier, More Active Maine; and Patrick Celestine, Traffic Calming
MBTA Max L. Wilder Award†
- James Whitty, Oregon Department of Transportation: Oregon Road Usage/Charge Program
*Cash prizes sponsored by ASCE – Maine Chapter; AGC Maine and MBTA.
†Plaque and award sponsored by MBTA.