Past and present come together at 75th MBTA Annual
Then and now
There was a lot of looking back and forward going on at the MBTA Annual Meeting, May 5 at the Augusta Civic Center. The yearly get together marked the beginning of the organization’s 75th year. It also gave leaders in the transportation field a chance to look back over the recent past.
The meeting began with a panel discussion with MaineDOT Commissioner David Bernhardt and Maine Turnpike Authority (MTA) Executive Director Peter Mills. The two transportation chiefs each gave a brief look into the future.
Bernhardt looked back at the recent past, and spoke about the agency’s internal efforts to develop an asset management system that has resulted in the state’s priority classifications for state highways and is part of a national effort to develop a transparent method for allocating scarce public road funding.
“We are not there yet, but we are ahead of a lot of other states,” said Bernhardt.
His address encompassed a wide range of other matters, from the current funding shortfall and efforts at the federal level to pass a new transportation authorization, to work underway to update MaineDOT’s long-range plan, and a collaboration with New Hampshire on a TIGER (Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery) grant to help fund the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge replacement.
He noted that all indications were that federal funding would remain flat at best when the new authorization passed, and that there was unlikely to be an increase to the federal gas tax. He also told the audience that alternative funding discussions remain in a stalemate, including a recent call by President Obama to open up tolling on the interstate. He alluded to the challenges of undertaking any kind of change in the current political climate: “If people get nervous in Brunswick about a train layover facility, they will go bananas over tolling,” said Bernhardt.
The MTA’s Mills looked toward the near future. He discussed what was ahead for the turnpike, including the upcoming sale of $30 million in bonds that the MTA will use to purchase the southernmost 1.9-mile stretch of I-95. That money will be used to help fund MaineDOT’s share of costs for replacement of the High Level Bridge connecting Maine and New Hampshire.
He also mentioned that the MTA board was expected to soon make a decision on open road tolling versus all-electronic tolling at its mainline plaza in York. The issue, he said, was one of fairness to all of the turnpike’s users. Data indicates that, if the MTA opted for all-electronic tolling, it would lose substantial revenues because the turnpike is not legally able to collect from drivers in most other states. “That funding would have to be made up by raising tolls on other customers,” said Mills, adding that those customers are largely Maine drivers.
After the panel discussion adjourned, MBTA members and friends gathered for a welcome reception before heading into the annual banquet, a vote on the slate of new officers and introduction of new and renewing board members.
Outgoing MBTA President Tom Gorrill welcomed the crowd to the MBTA’s 75th annual meeting, then introduced several notable audience members including Representative Bob Nutting and Republican Congressional candidate Kevin Raye. He also recognized past MBTA presidents members in the audience – Ralph Leonard, Don Raye, Mark Barnes, Herb Sargent, Phil Grondin, Jr., Steve Sawyer, Lauren Corey, Tim Folster, Tom Martin, Randy Mace and Doug Hermann – a strong showing for the big anniversary.
Gorrill gave the group a quick recap of the past year, the organization’s 74th year, and two important initiatives during his tenure as president: the development of the MBTA’s new Fix It Now! campaign and a new strategic plan.
“For me, the capstone of the year has been completing the new MBTA Strategic Plan,” said Gorrill. “Today the Board approved it, and we will be getting a copy to all of our members, posting it on the web site, and referring to it as we move forward over the next four to five years.”
“Seventy-five years. . . Wow. Very few of us in this room have reached that milestone,” said Jim Hanley as he stepped up to the podium for the first time as MBTA’s new president. “Seventy-five years ago, the average cost of a new house was $3,800. Average annual wages were $1,730. A loaf of bread cost 8 cents and a gallon of gas cost 10 cents. And it wasn’t too long before 1939 that the country suffered through the Great Depression.”
He continued: “So fast forward seven decades. In the last six years, Maine’s transportation system has weathered the longest, deepest recession since the 1930s.”
Still, Hanley was able to offer up a list of accomplishments that occurred during the recent recession, achieved thanks to the perseverance and vision of many of those gathered: MaineDOT’s I-295 rubblization projects; the Maine Turnpike Authority’s first open road tolling project in New Gloucester; NNEPRA’s expansion of passenger rail to Brunswick; port improvements at all three of Maine’s deepwater ports; and a major expansion at the Portland Jetport. Hanley also counted all of the positive forces working toward increased investment in Maine’s transportation system – an electorate that continually shows its support for transportation investment at the polls, support from local officials and a strong working relationship with the Maine Turnpike Authority and MaineDOT management teams.