Cover Story: We need a ‘paradigm shift’
A conversation with the Maine Turnpike Authority’s Paul Violette about the lack of funding for state highways and bridges, the politics of change, leadership and the future of tolling in Maine.
Maine Trails: Maine built its first modern highway as a user fee highway. What was so different about Maine when the Turnpike Authority was founded in the 1940s and how we view transportation infrastructure and its funding today?
Violette: Back when the Turnpike was built, there were no other options. There was no federal money. There was no Interstate system. The sum total of the state’s budget was something like $50 million, and they were proposing to build a $20 million road. They had to pursue something novel.
Today, our interstate system needs to be fixed, but it’s not falling down yet. It’s like when the paint is peeling on the house and the roof is getting old. You need to do something, but there’s not the sense of urgency. Our highways are like that, we need to fix them and soon, but people don’t feel the urgency they did when the Turnpike and the interstate system was first built. Also, the state government’s role in education, housing, safety, justice and health were fundamentally different then. State government then really was focused on highways and bridges. The Department of Transportation at that point was a major part of the entire state budget, and over the years, things have changed and more of the financial burden for other areas has been shifted to the states, so transportation is not the priority it used to be.
Maine Trails: What’s the biggest danger inherent in that shift in governmental priorities?
Violette: Our transportation system is deteriorating, and people are taking it for granted. And when it finally falls apart — and the time will come — the cost will be exorbitant as compared to what it would be if we were taking care of it right now. So far there are only a few politicians, such as Senator Dennis Damon, who have had the courage to stand up and tell the truth, to say that this vital lifeline for our state, our highway infrastructure, is crumbling and we need to do something about it.
Maine Trails: What will it take to get the state to make highways and bridges a priority? Is it a matter of public education? What will turn the tide?
Violette: It requires a paradigm shift. It does require education, but in the context of education, we as an industry have to get more strident. I think the MBTA has started this. Their most recent transportation report [Losing Ground] has gotten much better about talking about the problems and asking how we do something about this? But it’s also how we market this information. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
Maine Trails: The Maine Turnpike Authority was part of the Governor’s Capital Transportation Funding Working Group, and the report that the group released at the beginning of 2006 addressed many of these longer term funding issues in the context of the current funding shortfall. Is this the kind of challenge and change you mean?
Violette: At the beginning of the year with the Governor’s Task Force, we began to get everyone engaged and pushing all the different groups to have a discussion for the need to change. But I believe, it has to go farther and become part of the political discussion. Some state leaders have been very courageous and recognize that we need to change how we do things.
But that awareness has to grow and it’s going to take courage on the part of our leaders. You need to do what’s right for transportation not just what your party says. Senator Christine Savage (Knox), she understands it. She supported indexing, and she supported bonding in this last session. She’s been willing to take the political risk to make sure our roads are safe. That’s real leadership.
Maine Trails: But we have these highways and bridges that are so important to our economy and quality of life, and there clearly isn’t enough existing federal and state money to fix them. Does tolling have a place in helping the state address those needs?
Violette: We’ve tried at the Maine Turnpike to introduce the element of tolling in the state’s transportation policy when it comes to building anything new or if there’s a need to replace a substantial investment. That hasn’t happened yet. Tolls could provide at least part of the solution, but it will take some very courageous politicians to open that door. It won’t be easy to toll a part of the interstate that’s never been tolled before — even though we’ve polled on the issue and a vast majority of Maine people have said that was the fairest way. I think people understand that if you use it you pay and if you don’t use it you don’t pay. You use it more, you pay more — they understand that.
Maine Trails: There is a national movement toward the expanded use of tolling. What will it take to get tolling as a funding option on the table in Maine?
Violette: I am encouraged there’s more interest in looking at tolls on the national level, and I fully expect that the next version of the federal funding bill will be even more permissive about allowing tolling on the Interstate. That is the only prohibition right now. So we could put tolls today between Brunswick and Bath on the access controlled Route 1 — there’s nothing to say we can’t do that. On the Interstate, it’s much more problematic.
So the notion that the Maine Legislature had three or four years ago to help MaineDOT out by building a toll plaza and having the Turnpike take over the Interstate up to Waterville from Augusta. That’s a great idea. We would champion that, and we’ve talked to the administration and the department about this. But we just can’t turn around on a dime. There’s a prohibition, and that prohibition needs to be dealt with.
Maine Trails: What’s the next step?
Violette: I think Congress and the Department of Transportation at the federal level would be looking for a state to act as a demonstration project. If a state like Maine was willing to lead the way, I think there would be the support on the federal level. Of course, it doesn’t mean Maine would have to do it, it just means that if we want to, we can legally explore it. Right now, when we talk about these things, we can’t do them.
So I say, why not talk to our Congressional delegation about retaining one of those demonstration slots, say if we need to add capacity to a non-tolled Interstate or for a major rehabilitation project? We could choose a project that would be difficult to fund, say if we need to widen the Interstate from Portland to Brunswick or to do a major reconstruction, like between Brunswick and Gardiner — we will have to take all those concrete slabs up at some point.
But now, as it stands, you can’t toll a piece of existing Interstate unless you are one of these demonstration projects. The current law only allows a handful of them, and even then only for very specific purposes: to finance new construction and rehabilitation, to promote efficiency in the use of highways and to support congestion reduction.
Maine Trails: There’s been a lot of talk about expanding rail service in Maine and perhaps using tolls to help subsidize that expansion. What is the Turnpike’s position on that?
Violette: Our position at the Turnpike Authority is that we’re not opposed to the expansion of passenger rail, but the challenge is how to add more when you can’t even take care of what we have now. Taking care of what you already have and making sure it is safe and efficient and serves the people of Maine, that’s the hard stuff, and that takes leadership.
Maine Trails: The Maine Turnpike Authority recently voted to widen the Turnpike through Portland and is working to get its bond cap increased. The Turnpike is taking both of these to the Legislature, right?
Violette: That is exactly what I am talking about. Our job is to take care of this piece of infrastructure that we have and make sure it is safe and efficient and that it serves our customers and the people of Maine. And I’ve said this to our public affairs group — if I can only have one of these two things, to widen the Turnpike through the Greater Portland area or to get the bond cap increased to maintain the Turnpike, I want the bond cap increased so we can maintain the Turnpike. It is important to widen the Turnpike in Portland, but we also need to make sure we can take care of it. We have to be careful as we push to build new highways and add new services like the train. That’s the exciting stuff and it gets all the attention. But taking care of our infrastructure — that’s even more important — and that’s the biggest challenge facing us right now.
Maine Trails: Does that mean there could be more of a future for tolling in Maine?
Violette: I think that a lot of transportation leaders are beginning to see that if we are going to build anything new, we need to be considering tolls. It would take a project like a connector to Gorham or a new highway to Sanford or if we’re going to connect I-395 to the Airline.
Right now, it’s like the 1930s and ‘40s when the Turnpike Authority was first formed and there wasn’t any federal funding available. Tolls will give us a way to build an important piece of new infrastructure that would be very difficult to fund otherwise — and that’s just the challenge they had when the Maine Turnpike Authority was first founded. We have to understand that tolling isn’t the only answer, and that we need to be looking at other funding sources. Tolling wouldn’t work for some projects like an extension or the completion of I-95 in Aroostook County as a toll road. Those projects are just not going to generate enough money or the capital that’s needed. But a connector to Gorham can be paid for entirely with tolls. The economics are there.
Maine Trails: Other states are looking at privatization as a way to raise funds and build new roads. Is that something that might work for Maine?
Violette: Many other parts of the country are looking to privatization, but I’m not sure that has a place in Maine, because the volume and return on investment is not there. Or even if it makes fiscal sense for the state to be talking about it. I always compare selling a public asset like the Turnpike to selling the crown jewels. You’re selling one of the few things that actually makes money for you, like selling the liquor concession or selling the lottery.
Next, will you sell your income tax? Pretty soon, will you have anything left?
But when you’re having financial hard times and someone’s waving a check for a billion or two billion or maybe three billion dollars in front of you, it can be tempting. In most cases, this move to privatization of public roads is driven by the states’ budget problems, and a fair amount of that money is not going to transportation. It’s going to debt service or it’s going, in the case of the New Jersey Turnpike, to shore up the state retirement fund.
The truth is, Maine already can do what a private firm would do — and we can do it cheaper. The Maine Turnpike Authority can borrow money for less than Macquarie and Goldman Sachs. I can borrow tax-exempt debt right now for five percent, and I don’t need an 18 percent return on the investment that a private firm would need.
Finally, if you do talk about converting a public asset to private ownership, what problems are you opening the door to? Are we going to let that private firm put profits before safety? That’s never an issue with the Turnpike now. Well, the question is, if a private entity comes in, will it be in the state’s best interest?
Maine Trails: What do you think about other types of user fees like the system that’s being tested in Oregon right now? Do you think those hold promise?
Violette: Yes I do. The European community is going to a model where every tractor trailer truck is going to have either an RF [transponder-reader system similar to E-ZPass] or GPS [a satellite-based tracking system] device in it. Germany has just put GPS on the Autobahn for all commercial vehicles, and there’s never been a toll on the Autobahn before.
And I certainly see the day is coming when there will be the equivalent of a transponder that gets built into every vehicle, and it will comply with some national standard. Our trade association, the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, has been urging the federal government to set a standard for electronic toll collection for over 15 years. Once we have a national standard,
I think there’s no reason that a user fee system wouldn’t work in this country.