What do Mainers want? They want their roads fixed.
A tale of two Maines: The problems faced by Maine’s rural and urban planners couldn’t be more different. The trick will be finding common ground. By Douglas Rooks
Why is Maine’s transit ridership increasing? Could it be more than just pain at the pump? By Kathryn Buxton
Poll shows Maine voters concerned:
They want safe roads, bridges and “substantial and widespread remedies”
HNTB-Portland leading through innovation: After 62 years, the engineers export their Maine-earned know-how.
What do Mainers want? They want their roads fixed.
Sometimes it’s so hard not to say “I told you so.” Yet this fall, the Maine Better Transportation Association has to do just that. Command Research conducted a poll in September, asking 500 Maine voters about the condition of Maine’s highways and bridges (see article in Association News section of this issue). The poll also asked what they thought should be done about it.
What the poll found is pretty much what many of us in this industry have known for a long time — that they want their roads fixed, and they don’t just want a quick patch job. They want what Command Research called “substantial and widespread remedies.” As we head into MBTA’s campaign for transportation funding, that’s precisely the kind of marching orders we need. This isn’t one of those spring potholes that get filled with hot patch. “Substantial” and “widespread” call for big ideas. “Remedies” means voters want a cure for what they rightfully see is an ailing highway system that is putting their quality of life and personal safety at risk.
Yes, we need to work with the legislature to deal with the problems at hand — finding the funding Maine needs to repair the failing roads and bridges that were slashed from MaineDOT’s BTIP plan this past year. But we also need to think beyond this legislative session, and even past the next one, to a longterm solution.
As you know, MBTA has contracted with John Melrose and Maine Tomorrow to have them help identify the most effective and feasible funding options that will be a part of Maine’s transportation remedy. Already we have identified several promising “remedies” working in the context of September’s poll results:
Restructuring the gas tax: The idea is to incorporate a sales tax that will be offset by a reduction in the current per-gallon tax. This would tie revenues to increasing fuel costs and help address the falling revenues that are the result of decreasing fuel consumption. An overwhelming 91 percent of voters polled favored this measure.
Apply sales tax on car and truck sales to the Highway Fund. Currently these revenues are directed to the General Fund, but 74 percent of those polled saw this as a good way to fund highway maintenance.
Debt is a good idea, particularly when used to fund long-term capital investment in bridges. Nearly two-thirds of voters (64 percent) favored using debt to fix Maine’s bridges so that the cost of repairs would be shared by current and future users. Interestingly, only 10 percent favored no debt at all. That means many leaders’ concerns about the voter tolerance of debt are unfounded.
What we need to remember, as we work with the legislature and other community leaders toward devising a highway and bridge remedy, is that voters are more savvy and have more common sense than they often get credit for having. They understand how poor highways impact them, and they clearly understand the correlation between user financing and user debt. Keeping that at the core of any remedy that we develop will be critical. September’s poll did tell us what the MBTA’s leadership has believed all along: that reliable, safe and efficient highways and bridges are of great importance to the people of Maine. We don’t have time to say “I told you so,” and frankly, as tempting as it is, it would be counter productive. We need to focus now on making the case for change and bring all of our partners to the table. Only then will we be able to agree upon the “substantial and widespread remedies” that Mainers want.
In closing, I hope to see you at our upcoming Transportation Conference on the 7th of December, and also on the 14th at our Holiday Meeting at the Black Bear Inn. Please remember that our Super Raffle will be drawn on December 14th, with all the proceeds going to the Educational Foundation, making them 100 percent tax-deductible. Tickets are $50 each, and the winner gets a $7,000 vacation.
To purchase your tickets, call the MBTA office at 622-0526.
Cover Story: A tale of two Maines
Congestion vs. access. Posted roads vs. lane miles. The problems faced by Maine’s rural and urban planners couldn’t be more different. The trick will be finding common ground and working together as the state tackles the growing funding deficit.
By Douglas Rooks
It’s no secret that Maine’s highway construction and maintenance programs are short of money. It’s also no secret that, in a rural state where urbanized areas are the main sources of economic growth, there are widely varied needs in different communities. The growing funding crunch has increased the stakes in a tug of war between two sides that never seem to have a long enough piece of the rope.
The differing perspectives on urban and rural roads have always existed and probably always will, said Rick Michaud, city administrator of Saco. The subject is a familiar one for Michaud who grew up in Fort Kent and Eagle Lake and served in municipal government in Rockland and Madison before reaching his current post in southern Maine. He sees merit in both sides of the discussion. “A smooth ride is important, and the rural areas are right to want their roads reconstructed to a reasonable standard,” he said. But recent explosive growth in highway miles traveled in York and Cumberland counties — much faster than population increases — has made congestion a major headache for traffic planners. He said it’s no exaggeration to say that, in Maine’s two most populous counties, “There are roads that turn into parking lots every day.”
Drawing the lines
A recent report by the Maine Better Transportation Association shows clearly how road problems differ in various parts of the state, and how specific to certain regions the problems are. Posted roads — those that cannot carry heavy commercial traffic during late winter and early spring months — are distributed across a wide band of central Maine, west to east and north of most of the state’s major population centers. The differences are stark.
Statewide, 60 percent of minor collector roads are posted each year, along with 20 percent of major collectors. In York, Cumberland, the midcoast, and much of Kennebec and Androscoggin counties, just six miles of minor collectors and no major collectors are posted. In the western counties, 293 miles of minor collectors are posted, plus an amazing 428 miles of major collectors — more than half the state total in the latter category.
In eastern Maine, 483 miles of minor collectors are posted, plus 283 miles in northern Maine. To a great extent, posted roads are directly related to soil types, but outdated road design is also at fault. Free-flowing, gravel-base soils in southern Maine are fine for road building, and the rich agricultural soils of Aroostook County aren’t bad either. It’s the clay-rich hardpan soils of upland Maine that are particularly unforgiving for pavement, particularly when so little of the mileage has been reconstructed to modern standards.
It’s no coincidence, though, that the lightly traveled roads beyond the major population centers show the greatest deficits between current pavement standards and the acceptable ranges. Pavement and ride quality has dropped significantly from 2001 to 2004. “Poor” quality pavement was up from six percent to 25 percent, while “fair” pavement decreased from 62 percent to 39 percent. Even the “good” interstate miles dropped, from 89 percent to 83 percent.
Congestion presents a sharply different picture in terms of geography. The top 25 “congestion hotspots” lie mostly within York and Cumberland. Just a scattering of these high traffic areas are in populous areas to the north and east. Given the radically different needs, it is little wonder that perceptions of the infrastructure crisis are so different based on where one lives. It’s perhaps surprising that there isn’t greater distance between transportation advocates than there already is.
Rick Michaud currently chairs the policy committee for PACTS, the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, one of four federally designated metropolitan areas where transportation funding is allocated by a regional council, rather than the state Department of Transportation (the others are in Bangor, Lewiston-Auburn, and Kittery.) He believes he has an answer to which side of the rural-urban divide is being shortchanged. It’s the metro areas. “You take lane miles, population and traffic counts, and it all says we should be devoting more attention to the areas where people live and work every day,” Michaud said. “The existing formulas don’t begin to catch up to the actual needs.”
In Bangor, Rob Kenerson, director of BACTS, paints a similar picture. Up until the late 1990s, he said, the four metro areas received only about 10 percent of federal highway funding, even though their roads carry about 30 percent of all traffic. After discussions with then- MaineDOT Commissioner John Melrose, the metro share was raised to 20 percent, a proportion that has been maintained fairly closely ever since – although not in every funding round, Kenerson said. When MaineDOT recently allocated $30 million in additional road and bridge funding, only $3 million —10 percent — went to the four metro areas.
Even at 20 percent, PACTS and BACTS are getting less than their due, Michaud said. “I really believe it should be the greatest good for the greatest number. Funding should follow people’s needs. After all, even people who live in rural areas drive urban roads all the time.”
A place apart
From Caribou, the view is a bit different. Jay Kamm, senior planner at the Northern Maine Development Corp., said that access is the key issue. Getting to Aroostook County from other parts of Maine and the Northeast is an issue that is not as easily quantified as traffic counts and lane miles.
Kamm admitted that, “on the one hand, we can be as parochial as any other area.” On the other, there is significant awareness that northern Maine’s lifelines to the wider world involve investments like the Mack Point cargo port in Searsport that moves products vital to the northern economy. And while posted roads may loom large – particularly when they involve one of the two north-south links, as with Route 11 before it was improved – Kamm said his part of the state is not immune from congestion concerns. The Presque Isle bypass, many years in the making, is one such example.
Northern Maine is also more concerned with weight limits than other parts of the state, mostly because heavier trucks cannot travel on the interstate system north of Augusta (with the exception of certain cargoes). It’s an economic development issue that doesn’t fit the available categories, Kamm said, but “that doesn’t mean it’s not important.”
Kamm does give MaineDOT credit for making some significant changes in the way it plans for future needs. The traditional regional divisions of MaineDOT are, in some cases, giving way to corridor planning. To Kamm, this has the potential not only to provide better targeting of available funding, but also to reinforce the mutual dependence of different parts of the state. “If we start thinking about what moves here and back from Portland, and from Searsport, we’re more likely to make good choices than if we just see ourselves as competing regions,” he said.
Still, there are occasional blind spots in the state’s approach to rural areas, he said. When MaineDOT planners recently presented recommendations on reclassification of minor collectors to the Aroostook Public Works Association — essentially turning state-maintained roads over to municipalities, Kamm noticed that 60 of the 90 miles involved were in rural parts of Aroostook County. “Most of the rest were in urban compact areas, where the municipalities were already doing most of the maintenance,” he said. By contrast, turning over a lengthy stretch of state road to a rural town in the County can be a significant burden. “My question was why they were surprised at our reaction, at our concerns,” he said.
Seeing both sides
Pete Coughlan, who oversees local road assistance programs for MaineDOT, has a job that calls for seeing both sides of the debate. At workshops he conducts around the state that highlight local road issues, including project selection and funding, he witnesses the various urban-rural concerns close up. Still, there’s no getting around the overriding reality that “it’s getting harder and harder to get the roads fixed,” he said.
Coughlan recognizes the discontent at the metro planning agencies over current funding levels, but adds, “No one’s getting enough now, and the immediate future doesn’t look a whole lot better.”
He does credit two initiatives MaineDOT undertook, beginning in 1999, with at least rationalizing some of the decision-making regarding where MaineDOT directs funding, and in what quantity. As MaineDOT shifted its reconstruction program toward completing the arterial system that carries nearly 65 percent of traffic, the collector roads, particularly the smaller ones, fell further down the priority list.
In 1999, MaineDOT established the Minor Collector program, which provides two-thirds of project funding from the state if the municipality comes up with the remaining third — a recognition that without local participation, it was unlikely that any of these roads would be rebuilt, he said. While it was received initially with some skepticism, local interest in the program is strong and growing. More than 150 municipalities — nearly a third of the total statewide — expressed interest in the latest round, the largest number to date.
In the first years of the program, more state money was allocated than towns and cities were able to use. More recently, this program, too, has experienced more demand than it can satisfy, and municipal applications now have to be prioritized for funding. In the current biennium, the minor collector program will spend $8.1 million, reflecting both state and local shares, and will reconstruct 21.6 miles of roadway, according to Bill Crouse, a MaineDOT planner.
The second program, known as URIP, for Urban-Rural Improvement Program, provided a new way of allocating maintenance funding. Rather than simply considering road miles, the formula took into account the higher service levels needed in more developed areas, including traffic signals, drainage, shoulders and crosswalks, arriving at what MaineDOT deems to be a more equitable arrangement. Since the program currently allocates $26 million annually, about one-tenth of the MaineDOT budget, “this is a pretty good piece of the pie for the municipalities,” Coughlan said. URIP reflects the lobbying of the Service Center Coalition and other like-minded groups, but Coughlan points out that the program also represents a collaboration with the Maine Municipal Association, which vigorously defends the interest of smaller towns.
He admits that there will never be a perfect way of trying to balance competing interests. “If you look just at mileage, you’ll be drawn to the rural areas where there are an awful lot of roads that need upgrading,” he said. “But does that mean we let Western Avenue in Augusta go, that we don’t pay attention to Route 1?”
While the state will continue to make its allocations more reflective of overall transportation needs, Coughlan said, “We’ve been having this debate for 20 years, and my guess is that we’ll still be talking about in another 20 years.”
Maine News: Why is Maine’s transit ridership increasing?
Could there be more at play than pain at the gas pump? Maine’s transit insiders say it’s time to look deeper.
By Kathryn Buxton
Gas prices rise to historic levels in 2006-05. Ridership on the state’s fixed route transit services also post large gains. At first glance, the conclusion seems obvious: High gas prices have created a new wave of riders hoping to save more of their hard earned money. Yet transit insiders say the roots of this transit revolution go much deeper — to changing philosophies in how transit services are operated and marketed to the communities that stand to benefit most.
“Yes, ridership is going up, but I don’t know if it has anything to do with fuel prices,” said Marsha Bennett of the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments, the planning entity that manages the Lewiston-Auburn’s City- Link transit service. In FY 2006, the service carried approximately 215,000 riders, an increase of 8 percent over 2005. Bennett said it is a shift in the system’s philosophy, more than anything that has fueled its recent growth. “We made it more customer-friendly so people would have more direct links,” she said.
Case in point is the 17 percent increase CityLink experienced between 2004 and 2005. That was when CityLink started to retool some of its operations, lengthening its hours to accommodate the work schedule at area employers. The shift didn’t add any miles to the service, just hours to make it more attractive to local commuters. The service also launched a free downtown shuttle that transports riders between the two cities. Ridership has been particularly high on the shuttle that connects the Hilton Hotel, Central Maine Community College and downtown senior housing complexes. In Bangor, ridership increased on the BAT transit system by more than 10 percent last year (BAT stands for Bangor Area Transit).
Cooper, the senior transit and transportation planner for the Bangor Area Comprehensive Transportation Committee (BACTS) believes the increase is as much about marketing and community partnerships as it is about gasoline prices. He cites a partnership with the University of Maine begun in 2000.
The university pays the BAT a flat fee and, in exchange, students and staff can ride the BAT throughout the school year fare free and the University gets much needed relief from on its overburdened parking facilities. “That’s been one of our big success stories. As a single program, that part of our ridership is certainly increasing,” said Cooper. He said university ridership — those students and staff using their “MaineCards” to board the bus — grew by a phenomenal 25 percent from 2005 to 2006 from 57,924 riders to 72,206. Meanwhile ridership on other routes in the system has grown “more gently.” The system carried approximately 715,632 riders last year compared to 643,608 during the previous 12- month period.
He said that gas prices may be playing somewhat of a role, in that parents seeking economies now don’t send their student to school with a car. In 2003, the program expanded to include MaineCard fare-free riders systemwide. Cooper said there is anecdotal evidence that the expansion has attracted more cost-conscious student riders who now can live further from the school where rents are lower.
In Portland, the state’s largest and most heavily used transit system, METRO, annually carries more than 1.3 million passengers. Ridership on METRO grew by 1.5 percent last year. October 2006 was the system’s biggest month in more than 15 years with 128,565 riders. Peter Cavanaugh, the system’s acting director, expects that recent changes will continue to win new riders in the coming months. METRO inaugurated a fleet of 13 “clean fuel” buses that run on compressed natural gas and those new buses are immensely popular. This fall, METRO was marketing the service heavily to students at area colleges. METRO also launched a fall 2006 program offering fare-free travel to middle and high school students, a program they are considering extending into 2007.
Cavanaugh said that METRO is building a new Dowtown Transportation Center in Portland that will serve as a hub and enclosed waiting area for passengers. Providing a better customer experience and better service was the aim of the new center.
When it comes down to it, Cavanaugh sees the growth of METRO and like that of other Maine’s transit providers — dependent on each service’s willingness to remain flexible and constantly looking at how they can find new ways fill changing transportation demands in their regions. “It’s all about customer service and marketing,” said Cavanaugh.
Poll shows majority of voters concerned with condition of Maine’s highways and bridges
According to MBTA President Scott Leach, the poll results demonstrate what he calls a “disconnect” between voter perceptions and legislative priorities.
According to a fall 2006 poll, 91 percent of Maine voters said there were “significant” or “very significant” problems with the condition of Maine’s highways and only five percent think the state’s highways are in good shape. These were just two of the surprising results of a survey of 500 Maine voters by Command Research commissioned by the Maine Better Transportation Association.
“The poll shows overwhelming evidence that Maine people want substantial and widespread remedies when confronted with facts about the current condition of the state’s roads and bridges,” said MBTA President Scott Leach.
What Mainers think
The poll indicates a prevailing concern among Maine voters about the effect that failing highways and bridges have on safety, the state’s economy and Maine’s ability to retain younger members of its workforce. This concern was heightened when respondents were prompted with facts about the state’s highway system.
• 96 percent of those surveyed said they were concerned that the number of Maine roads judged to be in poor pavement condition had gone from seven percent in 2002 to 25 percent today. Thirty-four percent were very concerned.
• 97 percent were concerned that their children and grandchildren are at risk because of the poor quality of Maine’s bridges and roads.
• 97 percent were concerned when they learned that 90 percent of all freight moves in and out by truck and that good roads are the backbone of keeping Maine competitive.
• 97 percent were concerned that Maine is the only state in the Northeast that has lost construction jobs over the last few years. 56 percent were very concerned.
• 98 percent expressed concern that Maine is losing an opportunity to keep its young people in the state with well paying jobs.
Making it personal
Some of the most interesting information gleaned from the survey was just how closely Mainers have felt the impact of potholes, crumbling shoulders and the outdated design of the highways and bridges they use every day.
“We were particularly surprised,” said Leach, “by the number of people who were not surprised that the average Mainer [50 percent] has over $250 worth of damage done to their car.”
According to MBTA Executive Director Maria Fuentes, the poll results demonstrate what he calls a “disconnect” between voter perceptions and legislative priorities. “If we compare the concerns Mainers have about the safety and economic impact of the state’s failing highways and bridges and the funding priorities at the state legislature, it’s easy to see that something needs to be done to close that gap,” said Leach.
He said MBTA intends to use the poll results to help it shape the public debate on the need to find new funding sources for highway and bridge maintenance. Said Leach, “It’s pretty clear what needs to be done. We need to take a leadership role and work with the legislature to redefine how this generation tackles all the challenges ahead.”
To illustrate his point, Leach points to one particularly sobering statistic from the poll: 45 percent of Mainers surveyed knew of poor road conditions that had caused an accident for them, a member of their family or a friend. “That’s a scary thing, when it gets that personal that you realize that your safety and the safety of your loved ones is at risk,” said Leach. “That really makes the need to find real solutions all the more urgent.”
Member News: Leading through innovation
HNTB takes expertise gained in Maine on the road
There’s a saying at the Portland offices of HNTB Corporation, that “leadership is about leading, not about managing.” That drive for excellence pervades every aspect of the engineering firm’s operations and has made the Portland office a leader in construction management and toll plaza operation not only in Maine, but throughout the country.
HNTB first came to Maine 62 years ago, just as the state was launching its efforts to build the Maine Turnpike. The firm was chosen because of its pioneering experience in bridge and highway planning and design — the firm had been founded in 1914 in Kansas City, Missouri. Maine’s turnpike was only the second user fee highway built in the United States. HNTB, then known as Howard, Needles, Tammen & Bergendoff, was there at the start. The firm helped create a highway that remains today a national model for user convenience, safety and operating efficiency.
Today HNTB remains the Maine Turnpike’s prime consultant and has helped the Maine Turnpike Authority through every major achievement over six decades: the extension of the highway from Portland to Augusta (1955); the transition to electronic toll collection; the Turnpike Widening Project (2004); and the Turnpike’s central role in the just completed Gray Bypass (2006). “Our longevity and good working relationship with the Maine Turnpike Authority has really given us a depth of experience in these areas that few firms have,” said Roland Lavallee, officer-in-charge of HNTB–Portland. The firm also provides a broad range of services for the Maine Department of Transportation (MaineDOT). They began working for MaineDOT back in the 1960s, providing design services for portions of the interstate highway system. The firm is now MaineDOT’s No. 1 service provider and currently holds five MDOT general consultant agreements (bridge, highway, multimodal, planning and right-of-way) — the most of any firm.
A strong foothold in Maine
As the firm’s design work in Maine grew, so did its commitment to the state. HNTB-Portland officially formed in 1989, when a construction inspection field office opened with two employees. A full design office with seven employees was launched in 1996. HNTB’s work for MaineDOT includes several high profile projects, including Gateway 1 that is bringing together the diverse communities of midcoast Maine to look at long-term land-use and transportation planning. Lavallee observed that the challenge of that project has been working with communities to form a coalition that is ready to tackle the many issues that face the region as population and traffic continue to grow. The trick he said is finding a common vision. “They have to work together in order for this thing to work,” said Lavallee.
The firm’s Maine work also includes several municipal projects of interest. In Old Orchard Beach, the firm provided preliminary and final design work on a critical stretch of Route 98 that travels through town. The highway carries a high volume of local traffic — very high in the summer and fall when tourists come to enjoy the town’s famous beaches. The challenge was to improve the flow of traffic through the town — without destroying the historic neighborhood’s historic character. The stretch of state highway was also a popular pedestrian route for visitors walking to and from the local commercial district. HNTB worked closely with the town of Old Orchard Beach and MaineDOT regarding the enhancement of the historic district. The design HNTB developed incorporated granite curbing, grass esplanades with large replacement trees, and concrete sidewalks to preserve the neighborhood’s “small town” feel.
HNTB also provided design work on the rehabilitation of the historic Skowhegan Swinging Bridge. The pedestrian bridge over the Kennebec River is a centerpiece in the town, connecting Skowhegan Island to Alder Street. The 220-foot cable span, originally built in 1936, is the fourth swinging bridge in that location. The first bridge was built during the late 19th century to access a growing neighborhood on the island.
HNTB worked closely with the local representatives on the project to ensure that the historic character of the popular local tourist attraction and walking route for school was preserved.
Exporting Maine know how Since 1996, the Portland office has grown to 30 employees and boasts low turnover. The loyal staff has contributed to sales increasing from $3 million in 2001 to $5 million last year. This year’s projected sales are $5.7 million. The office’s expertise in large-scale construction management and toll plaza operations has earned those locally based engineers a national reputation. As more states look to highway user fees as a way to finance new construction and much needed maintenance of the country’s interstate system The Portland office has become a “center of excellence” for program management and traffic modeling for toll plazas and interchanges. HNTB-Portland engineers and planners also are in demand for their program management skills.
“Program management involves working with clients, particularly toll agencies, to analyze deficiencies and assist with activities such as financing, reports for bond rating agencies and administering design and construction,” said Lavallee. He said that increasingly HNTB Portland’s engineers have exported their expertise in traffic modeling for projects to other state departments of transportation and tolling authorities in Washington, Florida, Oklahoma and Texas.
“Our practical field experience gives the client an understanding of the issues before design and construction starts,” said Paul Godfrey, leader of the office’s traffic engineering-planning department. Another sign of HNTB-Portland’s rising stock in the industry was Lavallee’s recent promotion to head the Boston and New England area operations for the company. In New Hampshire, HNTB-Portland has been consulting with the NHDOT on the proposed widening of I-93, as well as on the general operations and maintenance of I-95. The firm’s experience working with the MTA and MaineDOT has been a key selling point. “A lot of people are talking about what’s being done up here in Maine, and a lot of people are trying to copy it,” said Lavallee.
That kind of leadership and innovation is very much central to the national firm’s culture. HNTB consistently ranks among the top design firms in Engineering News-Record’s annual rankings in many categories, including bridges, highways, transportation and mass transit and rail. HNTB-Portland also has garnered its own industry recognition: most recently it shared second place honors with the Maine Turnpike Authority at the 2005 American Road & Transportation Builders Association Transportation Development Foundation’s (ARTBA-TDF) Globe Awards for the Turnpike Widening and Modernization Project.
“What makes the Portland office really unique is the tremendous team that has been assembled here,” said Lavallee. “Everyone here knows how to work as a team, but they aren’t afraid to express initiative. That’s how we have been able to grow beyond our bounds. We encourage each other and are not afraid to take that next step.”