Road trip: Eastport
MBTA takes the Fix It Now! campaign Downeast
It was anything but business as usual at the MBTA’s annual Washington County Meeting, June 5 at the Eastport Chowder House. The organization regularly holds regional issue meetings in South Portland, Eastport Presque Isle, Bangor and Augusta and took advantage of the opportunity to gather transportation, business and government leaders for a pre-dinner panel discussion about the condition of the Downeast region’s transportation network – road, rail, marine and recreational infrastructure – and local priorities. The panel discussion was a regional kick-off for the MBTA’s statewide Fix It Now! campaign and featured presentations by John Melrose, former MaineDOT commissioner and MBTA’s senior policy advisor; Judy East, executive director of the Washington County Council of Governments; Chris Gardner of the Eastport Port Authority; Gary Willey, a former Milbridge selectman and businessman; and Steve Whitcomb of H.O. Bouchard, Inc.
In front of an audience of 70, Melrose outlined the impetus behind the Fix It Now! campaign – major transportation financing shortfalls, substantial unmet statewide transportation needs and a lack of political consensus that has made finding a solution difficult.
Melrose also spoke specifically about the challenges that Washington County currently faces – with just 2.25 percent of the state’s population living within its county lines, the county is home to 6.1 percent of the state highway system (556 miles of state roads and 101 bridges measuring 20 feet or longer) and a disproportionate number of those miles (almost 162 miles) rated D or F for safety and condition under the MaineDOT classification system. Melrose also noted that 22 percent of the county’s bridges are classified as “structurally deficient” and in need of repair or replacement by the state and federal governments.
WCCOG’s East gave the gathered crowd a wish list of transportation projects. That wish list began with a call for improvements to unbuilt sections of Route 1 and other state highways and included roadway design upgrades to separate slow-moving and fast-moving traffic on state roads. East also said the county’s planners are working toward investments in the county’s multimodal and intermodal infrastructure – aviation, bike-ped, transit, freight rail and marine – to spur economic growth, attract tourism and improve mobility.
Gardner talked about recent and future improvements to the Port of Eastport, one of Maine’s three deepwater ports and the closest U.S. cargo port to Europe. Those improvements include a new bulk handling cargo facility and reconstruction of the Eastport breakwater that is being funded in part by a $6 million TIGER grant (Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery).
Retired businessman and former Milbridge selectman Gary Willey spoke about the importance of good transportation for the county’s communities and businesses. The region is home to agriculture- and natural resource-based industries that rely on an interconnected and multimodal transportation system to ship products across the nation and across the ocean.
Steve Whitcomb of H.O. Bouchard, Inc. presented the shipper’s view. His company is one of the largest bulk carriers in the state, with total employment of about 175 between H.O. Bouchard and its forestry division, Comstock Woodlands. He said that many in the transportation industry are advocating a fuel tax increase to boost highway funding. Whitcomb firmly believes that fuel taxes, not tolls, are the preferred method of revenue generation, and that better roads will reduce shipper costs and help move the economy.
The evening dinner program featured a presentation by WCCOG’s Crystal Hitchings, who has been working on development of the Bold Coast Scenic Byway, Maine’s most recently designated scenic byway. Washington County got a big boost in development of the 125-mile route as a tourist destination when it received a $100,000 MaineDOT grant to develop a byway corridor plan last year. Hitchings spoke about progress on the corridor plan that encompasses more than a dozen coastal communities from Milbridge to Eastport.
In the audience were a number of community leaders, all with a stake in the discussion of the county’s transportation network, including Representative Joyce Maker (R-Calais) and her husband Geoffrey Maker; Representative Katherine Cassidy (D-Lubec); Transportation Committee member, Representative Archie Verow (D-Brewer) and his wife Fran Verow; Sunrise Economic Development Council Executive Director Charles Rudelitch and Eastport City Council Chair and Port Authority Board member Mary Repole and her husband Pete Repole.
MBTA President Jim Hanley urged everyone present to stay engaged in the fight for better transportation for the region and to call on candidates in the upcoming elections to make transportation a priority.
“We are fortunate in this great state of ours that we have access to candidates, incumbents, and their challengers,” said Hanley. “We ask that when you talk with those running for office, whether it is a statewide office or a legislative office, that you tell them how important transportation is to you, to your region, to your family, your business, or whatever area applies to you. . . We know it is hard for transportation to compete with things like education and health care, but let’s face it – transportation is a bread-and-butter issue . . . Help us spread the good word about the need to make transportation more of a priority.”