MBTA’s Maria Fuentes talks to Transportation Committee members Senator Linda Valentino (D-York County) and Representative James Gillway (R-Searsport)
Maine Trails: What made you want to serve on the Transportation Committee?
Senator Valentino: The Maine Legislature’s Transportation Committee is the committee with the most direct relationship between constituents and Augusta. Constituents can see tangible results in their communities, whether it is paving or improving a road, making a bridge safer, or providing more opportunities for companies to ship their products through marine or rail improvements.
Representative Gillway: Everyone who serves in Augusta has some expertise. I’ve been a police officer for over 25 years. In addition, for the past nine years, I have been the town manager of Searsport. I could easily serve on a couple of different committees, but because Searsport is one of Maine’s three ports, I felt it was very important to seek out the Transportation Committee to help advance multimodal transportation issues. I felt that I could bring some real life experience to the committee.
Maine Trails: When your constituents talk to you about transportation, what do they most often talk to you about?
Senator Valentino: The most frequent comment I hear is about roads and the gas tax. People seem to think they are paying too much in fuel taxes, but not getting enough services. Now that I have served on the Transportation Committee, I understand that we are underfunding our system, and we need to address that in a comprehensive way. The other thing I hear about is the need for red lights at certain intersections to improve safety.
Representative Gillway: It changes a lot. A little over a year ago, it was all about the movement of propane by ship, rail and truck. This year it’s all about dredging.
Maine Trails: 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 are your thoughts on this issue?
Senator Valentino: I think that, as a state, we need to develop comprehensive tax reform for our transportation system, rather than nibbling at the edges. When the legislature has taken on tax reform, there are always winners and losers and certainly the losers have been more vocal. People in Maine need an efficient transportation system. Despite the fact that we have been climbing out of a recession, people are still driving a lot, and this is shown by the fact that vehicle miles traveled have really not decreased significantly. Other states have figured out how to advance transportation funding proposals, and we need to as well. Virginia implemented a sales tax at the wholesale level, but they did it as part of a comprehensive plan. Other states are indexing their fuel tax or figuring out other ways to make funding more sustainable. There are options out there, but we need to look at this in a more thorough way.
Representative Gillway: I think there is a need to have a mix of funding sources. Not everyone drives, but everyone needs our transportation infrastructure. In my town, we actually have a mix of excise tax and property tax paying for the local roads.
Maine Trails: 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?
Senator Valentino: That is difficult because we don’t want to penalize energy efficiency and practices that are environmentally sound. At the same time, we need to recognize that everyone benefits from safe roads and bridges. Even those who don’t drive benefit from our road system – pedestrians and bicyclists have to use roads, and we all depend on our transportation system to have products shipped to us and to ship Maine products to world markets.
Representative Gillway: We desperately need to come up with a new system for paying for our highway infrastructure. I think we need to develop a system like the one they are introducing in the state of Oregon. They give motorists options and take advantage of available technology.
Maine Trails: The 125th 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?
Senator Valentino: Yes, we should discuss it, but only as part of a comprehensive tax reform package. The cost of everything is going up and that is true also of the cost of repairing our system. If we keep the same baseline, we will keep getting further behind.
Representative Gillway: I voted to end the motor fuel tax indexing and still stand by that decision. Putting any tax on autopilot is not a good idea. I think that if a strong enough argument can be made to increase the fuel tax, it should be voted on by the people.
Maine Trails: 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?
Senator Valentino: Yes!
Representative Gillway: I do think this is a subject that should be explored and should be part of the negotiation.
Maine Trails: 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?
Senator Valentino: I spoke with our house chair, Representative Theriault, because I like to ask legislators what is going on in their districts. He said that the rail service has been a huge boost to Aroostook County, and that overall, everybody is very pleased because there are more rail cars on the line and more commerce in Aroostook County.
Representative Gillway: It was a good way to save a vital piece of our infrastructure and promote economic development. I support it.
Maine Trails: Marine transportation is the cleanest and most efficient mode to move many types of cargoes. What should Maine do to improve marine transportation in Maine?
Senator Valentino: Maine should continue supporting the three major marine ports in our state: Portland, Searsport and Eastport. In the last bond issue, there was a $5 million investment targeted at enhancing the Port of Portland and, as a result, we were able to attract a major international company – Eimskip – that is now using Portland as its North American base. The state will receive a huge return on that investment, and it proves how targeted investments in transportation enhance our economic competitiveness.
Representative Gillway: I would like to see Maine make some more investments in marketing all three ports. We also need to educate the public about the importance of our ports. I know my town and other towns in the regions served by port operations would help in this cause. I am sure that the private operators in our ports would help, too.
Maine Trails: Beyond highway investments, what are your priorities for improving passenger and freight transportation?
Senator Valentino: Again, the investment in the port of Portland shows that investment in transportation helps bring business and tax revenues to Maine. I have been a strong support of the Downeaster, which has been a great success in southern Maine, and having a stop in Saco has helped our community. I know my daughter found it very convenient when she was going to school in Boston, and the ridership numbers continue to grow.
Maine’s population is the oldest in the country. As our population continues to age, we should be looking at alternative transportation for the elderly.And finally, we must continue to improve rail and marine transportation that make sense in order to reduce costs for our shippers and other businesses.
Representative Gillway: I’m probably a little biased. I favor multimodal transportation and want to strengthen our port-rail connections. I think the economy will move more people to use passenger rail. We need to prepare for the potential demand.
Maine Trails: What is the one transportation project in your district you would most like to see completed and why? What about the state?
Senator Valentino: For my region and the entire state, I would have to say that we need to fully fund the three bridges between Kittery and Portsmouth as they are the gateway to our state. We must ensure that all three bridges are fully operational.
On a more local level, the Stackpole Bridge in Saco has been closed for the past year, so that would be a local priority as well.
Representative Gillway: I go back to an earlier question – the topic of the year. I want to see the Searsport Bay dredge project completed. I believe this is not only a local issue, but it is one of the most important state and even federal issues facing us today.
Maine Trails: What accomplishment are you most proud of this past session?
Senator Valentino: I was proud to chair and work with the Legislature’s Workforce and Economic Future Committee, and I am excited about the prospect of getting a jobs bond out to voters to stimulate jobs and enhance communities.
Representative Gillway: The committee approved a lot of good legislation this year. I am pleased with all of it. I am most proud of the committee. We worked together in such a non-partisan way, I doubt anyone in the audience could tell which party any of us belong to.
Maine Trails: What priority issues might you urge the committee to take up in the next session?
Senator Valentino: The highest priority for the Transportation Committee should be to address the funding issue for roads and to work with partners such as the different transportation groups, the Maine Chamber, construction and municipal groups, the trucking industry and all who have a stake in our transportation system. Otherwise, our funding gap – which is currently between $100 million and $150 million – will continue to grow.
Representative Gillway: I would love to see us work on the inequity in the motor fuel tax.
Maine Trails: 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?
Senator Valentino: I would like to reform the process of submitting bills for consideration to the legislature. We know that the business community needs predictability, and there should be a way to streamline the process relative to letting bills in. One way may be to not allow bills in the second session unless they are true emergencies, or require a two-thirds vote for them to go forward. We spend too much time going through bills that come up every two years and aren’t going to go anywhere.
The most rewarding thing about serving is constituent work, and the people I have been privileged to meet because of my service. This clearly includes my constituents first, but also the people I get to meet from across the state who serve, or who are staff, or part of the process.
Representative Gillway: I enjoy working in committee and working with the various departments and the lobbyists who visit Transportation. However, I would love to see the legislature start and end on time. If we had some time limitations, I think people would make better use the time available. We waste a lot of time waiting for people to arrive and get to work.