Association News: Challenges and opportunities.
International perspectives broaden state outlook at 57th Maine Transportation Conference.
By Kathryn Buxton
From a national perspective, the outlook on transportation and the economy isn’t much brighter than it is in Maine. Funding is short. Vehicle miles and congestion are increasing on our highways and in our ports. The country’s transportation infrastructure is aging and, in some cases, falling down. The political will to address these problems is allbut- non-existent.
All the talk of doom and gloom, said Charles V. “Casey” Dinges, could sound like a lot of engineers looking for work. “But if we just keep our mouths shut, there will be plenty of work to be done,” said Dinges, managing director of external affairs for the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Dinges was the keynote speaker at the 57th Maine Transportation Conference on December 6 at the Augusta Civic Center. In addition to his dark words about falling bridges and constricted transportation budgets, he offered snapshots of initiatives to raise public awareness of the growing crisis, including his organization’s efforts to publish infrastructure “report cards” (www.asce.org/reportcard). After the presentation, Maine Chapter – ASCE past president Peter Merfeld said the state group would be doing a similar report card for Maine.
In a series of technical and policy workshops that lasted throughout the day, speakers looked at the challenges and opportunities facing Maine’s transportation community from a range of perspectives. Senator Dennis Damon (D-Hancock), chair of the Maine Legislature’s Transportation Committee and moderator of the session titled “Our Aging Infrastructure – The Hidden Costs,” issued one of the first and strongest calls to action heard throughout the day. The problems are many, he said, so many that it can induce a feeling of helplessness. He said that it can be discouraging in the Transportation Committee knowing how Maine’s highways and bridges are getting worse and there is no money to fix them. “When people ask me ‘How do you do it?’” said Damon, “I say: ‘You have to do it, because the alternative is to sit on our hands, and clearly that isn’t enough.’”
‘Call it a crisis’
At that same session, MaineDOT Deputy Commissioner Bruce Van Note offered a bleak inventory of the challenges facing Maine’s Department of Transportation, the Maine Legislature and its other elected leaders. “Not good and getting worse,” was his darkly humorous synopsis of the condition of Maine’s transportation system. No matter what others may call it, he said, “I continue to call this a crisis, and I encourage you to do the same thing.” Van Note told the audience of assembled engineers, planners and policymakers that it would be a matter of coming up with the funding for Maine’s network of aging highways and bridges or watching them fall into deeper disrepair – “pay or post,” as he termed it.
Van Note’s co-presenter, economist Jim Haughey of Reed Construction Data, put the outlook in terms of dollars and sense. He said that the Maine and national economies will be affected by the collapse of the sub prime mortgage market and tightening credit markets. He said that, in turn, would negatively impact the competitive bidding on capital infrastructure projects, meaning transportation funding would not go as far. He also predicted that the state’s economy would continue to be lackluster in comparison with the New England and U.S. economies. In one upbeat note, he said despite steeply increasing prices for oil and gas, that asphalt prices would stabilize, as oil producers took their profits “off the top of the barrel.”
During the policy track, members of Maine’s transportation community had the opportunity to hear about transportation developments in Europe and China in a session moderated by MaineDOT Commissioner David Cole. Dr. Mike Meyer of Georgia Tech spoke about transportation investments in Europe.
His talk focused on that region’s emphasis on increasing safety for its citizens (Europe currently experiences only 89 traffic-related fatalities per million versus the 147 fatalities in the U.S. every year). He discussed Europe’s regional approach to the movement of freight and services. Meyer also spoke of how cross-border cooperation regarding freight regulation and infrastructure enhancements has improved interconnectivity and advanced trade among European nations by moving goods and people across 30 coordinated corridors called “trans European networks” (TENs). Meyer discussed European nations’ heightened interest in “sustainable mobility” – investments in technology and infrastructure that conserve energy, improve air quality and protect the environment. He said that as Americans are just beginning to entertain the notion of new funding models for its transportation networks, Europe has moved ahead of us, with more private funding and distance-based user fees. He closed with the thought that if the U.S. is to compete, they must take a more creative and global perspective. “There is no time for complacency,” said Meyer.
Europe’s mature economy and transportation network was in direct contrast to the portrait painted of transportation in China. Eva Lerner-Lam of the Palisades Consulting Group, Inc., took session participants on a whirlwind tour of a decade-long building spree that the Chinese government has undertaken. With slide after slide, Lerner- Lam showed visions of dramatic new bridges, express highways and high speed passenger rail facilities.
She recounted having first visited the country in 1992 and the long trip from the airport to her Shanghai hotel on a two-lane dirt road. A little more than a decade later, that trip was reduced to just eight minutes on a multi-lane express highway. Lerner-Lam also spoke about the Chinese conceptual model of integrated development that mixes private and public funding at a ratio of two-thirds public investment to one-third private funding. Lerner- Lam said that model places the Chinese government in the role of investor. Compared with the western trend of asset monetization – selling off its public infrastructure to private companies – China’s “asset equitization brings the public and private sectors to the table” as co-owners. The public gains because the citizens remain the majority owners and key beneficiaries of this shiny new network of highways, bridges and transit.