The transportation talk started early in the day at the Transportation Legislative Breakfast & Briefing in Augusta on February 11. The event has become an annual gathering for transportation and legislative leaders, and this year the talk was about looking ahead to address the pressing transportation funding gap faced by the state. Dozens of legislative leaders attended, as well as members of the sponsoring organizations: MBTA, Maine Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Council of Engineering Companies of Maine and the Maine Automobile Dealers Association.
Transportation Committee Co-Chair Ken Theriault (D-Madawaska) opened the breakfast with brief remarks about the non-partisan nature of transportation, and offered a compliment to his fellow committee members – several of them in the audience – for their ability to work together.
“I wouldn’t want to be on any other committee,” said Theriault.
The morning program featured two other speakers: MaineDOT Commissioner David Bernhardt, who spoke about the Department of Transportation’s new three-year work plan and John Melrose, a former MaineDOT commissioner and currently MBTA’s senior policy advisor. Bernhardt gave the broad strokes: $2.02 billion in projects budgeted over the next three years; two-thirds of that is slated for capital projects; and 25 percent will go to maintenance and operations.
Bernhardt also brought up the inevitable – the $100-million-per-year in additional funding that MaineDOT needs to keep up with needed maintenance and reconstruction.
“That is down from $150 million a year or two ago,” Bernhardt told the legislators and transportation professionals present, mentioning initiatives at MaineDOT and in the legislature – including prioritization of the state highways and bridges, redistribution of state police budget responsibilities and a $100 million general obligation bond approved by voters in November.
Still, Bernhardt warned of possible complications ahead: “Some of the system is falling apart faster than we thought, so we’re going to look at that again this spring.”
“Two thousand and fourteen looks pretty good,” said the commissioner, as he offered up some specifics on the first year of the work plan: 54 bridge projects, 258 miles of preservation paving, 600 miles of skinny mix paving, 73 miles of highway rehabilitation and reconstruction, 63 spot and safety projects and 128 multimodal projects.
‘They are just getting old’
He also painted a picture of a future that is in doubt, due to a lack of support for new transportation revenues. “This work plan assumes flat funding on the federal and state levels . . . and it also assumes future bonding,” said Bernhardt.
Bernhardt offered a view of other projects on MaineDOT’s horizon, including finalizing the department’s performance measures and updating its long-range needs assessment. He said MaineDOT will update Keeping Our Bridges Safe, a report on the state’s bridges first published in 2008 after the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis. That updated report is likely to show that Maine soon will need to make a considerable investment – similar to the $160 million in Transcap bond funding approved by the legislature in 2008.
“We need to find a way to fix for our bridges,” said Bernhardt. “The average age of our bridges is much older than the rest of the country. They are just getting old and we need $8 million to $12 million to replace each one of them.”
John Melrose, the other speaker on the program and a self-professed “data geek,” offered a look at the data on Maine’s transportation infrastructure and his analysis of municipal, state and federal funding.
“There are some very worrisome things in the data,” said Melrose. He reeled off a number of those “worrisome things”: a 17 percent drop in the gallons of gas sold in Maine; an increase in vehicle fuel efficiency; the fact that the trend among baby boomers is to drive fewer miles after age 45; and that the federal government hasn’t increased the gas tax since 1993.
Melrose told the leaders gathered, that when talking about increasing funding for roads and bridges, the question is … “Who should be paying for this? We need to sort our way through the issue of tax equity.”
He said equity will be the issue in the future, as Maine and other states move into a new era of transportation funding. In Maine, he said, it could mean taxing out-of-state visitors via a transportation-dedicated sales tax or user fee or devising a means to address equity for the “Dodge Ram driver versus the Prius or the Ford Focus driver.”
Melrose also mentioned efforts other states have enlisted to address their funding shortfalls: public-private partnerships; increases in state gas taxes (Wyoming is one of a slew of states that recently increased its gas tax – by 10 cents); and a vehicle-miles-traveled fee being implemented in Oregon.
The breakfast briefing concluded with a question-and-answer session before legislators headed off to business at the state capitol and elsewhere. Representative Terry Hayes (D-Buckfield) suggested that she and other legislators ask their constituents how they would prefer to fund transportation. She suggested approaching it as a “customer survey to to see what they say.”
Other questions included one about TIGER grants (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) (Commissioner Bernhardt said Maine appreciates past TIGER grants and plans to submit proposals in future TIGER funding rounds); building more bike lanes (MaineDOT follows a “Complete Streets” policy when reconstructing state highways, and that includes incorporating bike lanes in the redesign); and the inadequacy of skinny mix paving as a fix for rural highways where bad pavement is causing damage to commercial and private vehicles (with the cost of reconstruction between $2 million and $4 million a mile, there is simply not enough to go around).
FMI: The 2014 Legislative Breakfast & Briefing was sponsored by the MBTA in partnership with Maine Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Council of Engineering Companies and the Maine Automobile Dealers Association. For more information about this and other MBTA events, visit www.MBTAonline.org.