Pushing toward the tipping point
A new grassroots campaign is being launched by MBTA to fix Maine’s growing inventory of aging bridges and rough roads
By Kathryn Buxton
It’s pothole season, and if you live or work in Kennebec County, you probably have noticed that some roads this year seem worse than ever before. But do you know that 75 of the 186 bridges in the county – 40 percent – are either functionally obsolete or structurally deficient? Do you know that 126 miles of the county’s most heavily used highways are among the worst roads in the state? And do you know that every time you drive on one of those substandard highways you are more likely – in some cases almost twice as likely – to have an accident? Now, knowing that the problem is so widespread throughout your community and affecting the safety and livelihood of not just you, but your family, neighbors and friends, does that motivate you to take action to demand a solution?
Taking an abstract problem and breaking it down to its basic elements, such as the personal cost of bad roads on your car and, possibly, yourself, is at the heart of Fix It Now!, a new statewide initiative underway at the Maine Better Transportation Association.
“When we talk about the problems of transportation funding, we are used to ‘speaking to the choir,’” said MBTA President Tom Gorrill. The “choir” he is talking about is that band of fellow transportation advocates who have been warily watching the problem of funding get worse over the past decade or more. Those advocates understand about the effect of decreased buying power of the state’s Highway Fund, as well as the declining state and federal emphasis on maintaining and modernizing public infrastructure. Still, Gorrill said, getting the public to understand what is at stake – and to call for a change – has proven more elusive.
“Maine people value transportation – we know that because of their strong support of every transportation bond referendum during the past few decades. But bonds are short-term solutions,” said Gorrill. “We have a big problem and we need to get people engaged in a debate about solutions. This campaign is about doing just that – informing local citizens and pushing them to the tipping point. We want people to see the heavy price we pay – personally and societally – for rough, potholed filled roads and aging, deficient bridges. We want voters to demand a change in how we pay to fix our transportation system.”
‘We’ve got to think bigger’
The MBTA board of directors threw itself behind the Fix It Now! campaign last year, as it became evident that the issue of a transportation funding fix had stalled on both the state and federal levels. Gorrill said that board members felt that transportation could only rise in legislative priority if it were to be a clear priority among voters.
Rodney Lane, a member of the MBTA board of directors, believes the time is right for Fix It Now! The economy is emerging from the recession that hit in December 2007 and all but halted any talk of new taxes or user fees on the state and federal levels, as business and government adopted a survival mentality.
In Maine, that has meant shifting the focus to lower cost maintenance techniques such as skinny mix paving that can hold a road together in the short term, but only serve as a stopgap. Experts agree that MaineDOT has done an excellent job of prioritizing and stretching its dollars, yet over time, a perennial lack of sufficient funding threatens public safety and the state’s economic prospects.
“Our economy is starting to improve,” said Lane. “However, we are a long way from the correct funding levels to provide an infrastructure that is safe and robust enough to attract new businesses, promote more tourism and create economic opportunities for small and large businesses, as well as landowners.”
Lane said that it is important for community and business leaders to get past the survivor mentality and seek bold solutions for big problems: “We have got to start thinking bigger in this state. We have got to stop just protecting ourselves from the naysayers and go on the offensive. We can protect the natural beauty and resources of Maine while we improve our ports, roads, bridges, airports, bicycling/pedestrian trails and rail.”
Fix It Now! is a three- to five-year campaign similar in scope and reach to campaigns the MBTA has undertaken in the past, including the fight for voter approval of the Turnpike widening project in 1997 and legislative passage of L.D. 1790: An Act to Sustain Maine’s Transportation Future, which was enacted by the legislature in 2007.
The board launched an early phase of the campaign last year, commissioning research by John Melrose of the Eaton Peabody Consulting Group. Melrose, a former MaineDOT Commissioner and longtime MBTA senior policy advisor, is looking at data from MaineDOT and the Federal Highway Administration, including MaineDOT’s Asset Management Database that ranks the safety, condition and service of Maine’s highways and bridges.
Melrose’s research provides the big picture, as well as an up-close view of a transportation system that is not keeping pace. It is this research that will form the foundation for Fix It Now!
“Once you begin to drill down into the data, you have a treasure trove of information to make the case,” said Melrose.
The big picture, Melrose said, is not good. And it shows that Maine is not keeping pace with the statutory goals established by the Maine Legislature. That means that the state is falling short of its goals to have its most heavily traveled roads fixed. These goals include having 2,351 miles or 100 percent of priority 1 and 2 roads, including Maine’s interstates, brought up to the grade of “fair” or better by 2022 and 1,972 miles or 100 percent of priority 3 roads upgraded by 2027.
Melrose notes that task will require both discipline and cash to achieve. Currently, Maine has 1,521 miles of highway to fix in order to meet those goals (765 miles of priority 1 and 2 highways and 756 miles of priority 3 highways). MaineDOT estimates it needs additional annual funding of more than $100 million annually to get the job done.
In 2012, the state actually lost ground in that effort due to low levels of funding, with 52 miles of priority 1 and 2 highways slipping from “fair” to “poor” in the MaineDOT database.
Melrose said that the state’s bridge situation is even more precarious. Currently, the average bridge age in Maine is 49 years old – eight years older than the national average. Fifteen percent of all state-maintained bridges (355 bridges) are structurally deficient, and 18 percent (430) are functionally obsolete, according to the Federal Highway Administration. In 2008, Governor Baldacci’s office launched the Keeping Maine’s Bridges Safe initiative, and the Maine Legislature appropriated special bridge funding prompted by the I-35W bridge collapse in Minnesota. That money is all but spent. Any progress the state has made in tackling its backlog of aging bridges is in danger of being reversed.
Melrose reels off a list of major bridges that are now or soon will be due for replacement, including “extraordinary bridges” – bridges that will cost $10 million or more to repair or replace – such as the international bridge connecting Maine and Canada in Madawaska and the bridge linking Jonesport and Beals Island.
“We need to start acting now. Bridges like these are essential to the lifeblood of the communities they serve and to the state. Planning for an international bridge like that can take 10 years or more,” said Melrose.
To bring the message home, literally, the board has commissioned Melrose to develop a snapshot of the issues faced by each of Maine’s 16 counties. These county reports break the information down county-by-county.
“There’s a great value in knowing that if you live in Kennebec County, these specific roads and bridges are not meeting the standard – and how that may be affecting your safety and your bottom line,” said Gorrill. “That’s going to make you more apt to call your legislators and tell them to do something about it.”
Fellow board member Rodney Lane noted that the campaign has currently entered into its second phase and plans to build an interactive web site that will put that local, “small picture” information at voters’ finger tips, and that will form the focal point of a statewide grassroots campaign for change.
“Generation Y is engaged and wants to be part of making change for good reason,” said Lane. “They are linked in. I just don’t see people calling their legislators with questions or complaints as the way to instigate change. Give them a web site with pictures, testimonials, etc. Inform them of the problems. . . Poll them about funding while you’re educating them about funding . . . Ask them what they care about and link their response to their legislator.”
Lane and other board members have been active in giving shape to the web site. The campaign plans to launch the site late this year. He said they want to make it a conduit for positive change.
“We want Mainers to see a very simple site that gives them an easy way to voice concerns about the roads that they and their families travel on. We want a site that will build a swell of support to instigate action and generate enough traffic to influence our legislators in Augusta,” said Lane.
In the coming months, MBTA is working with like-minded organizations to build the statewide grassroots network that will help rally support for Fix It Now! The MBTA has identified diverse interest groups that have a stake in a modern, safe and efficient transportation system. Potential allies include business organizations, transit providers, bicycle advocates and port and rail supporters.
Melrose gives examples of two recent public infrastructure projects that have had a transformative role in the Maine community: the state purchase of a 233-mile railroad line in Aroostook County and improvements to the International Marine Terminal in Portland, that is now home to a direct marine freight line connecting Maine and Europe.
“If we can tackle our transportation problems and find a sustainable way to fund the system, everyone in Maine stands to benefit,” said Melrose.
“Public investment in infrastructure has an important role,” he continued. “Just look at the state’s efforts on behalf of the rail line in Aroostook County and in the expansion of the port of Portland. Those projects have encouraged the creation of new jobs and supported growing businesses and are getting people around the world interested in doing business with Maine.”
Get involved: Learn how you can get involved in the Fix It Now! campaign, contact the MBTA office, 207-622-0526 or e-mail Maria@MBTAonline.org.