Highway vs. alternative transportation. That’s not the real battle.
By Lauren Corey, MBTA President
In recent years, the MBTA has prided itself on working with diverse interests and championing all modes of transportation. Recently, due undoubtedly to the transportation funding crisis this state is in, groups have been splintering and the mood has been one of “us” versus “them.”
This is unfortunate, as what the transportation community needs is to stand together to advocate for funding for all modes of transportation. We know that transportation as a whole has declined dramatically as a priority at both the state and national level. While transportation used to make up 26 percent of state revenues 30 years ago, today that number is less than 10 percent. Transportation advocates should work together to turn that around.
Maine’s roads and bridges are in dire need of funding. We rank 13th in the nation when it comes to deficient, outdated bridges. The pavement condition of our highways is the worst in the New England region. Maine faces a $2.2-billion shortfall in funding to address these much needed repairs and maintenance over the next 10 years.
The truth is, we need to invest in all modes, and we will never make progress if we make any one mode our ultimate cause, or worse, engage in bashing a specific mode.
Don’t forget freight rail
At a recent meeting for public comment on the I-295 corridor, MaineDOT reiterated that “safety is paramount” to their mission and to their 20-year work plan. Yet, most who showed up for the meeting chose to engage in “highway bashing,” suggesting that expanding capacity on Maine’s most congested section of highway is somehow frivolous.
Keeping Maine’s transportation network safe – including corridors of concern such as I-295 in greater Portland – will require using what funds we have available to address our most critical safety concerns first. That means we need to fund expansion and reconstruction of congested highways, repair our backlog of 386 old and crumbling bridges and bring our rural roads up to modern standards. That isn’t the only thing we should do.
Economically, commercial rail expansion and development of our ports will help expand Maine’s tax base and reduce our carbon footprint. While all of the recent attention has been focused on passenger rail versus highway expansion, we’ve overlooked our freight rail and marine networks. Continuing to do so will be to the detriment of Maine’s economic health.
Out of reach
We need to be honest about current transportation services. While we’re establishing priorities, we have to remember the impact each dollar we spend will have for all of the people of Maine.
Even today, after breaking records in ridership and a fifth round trip added to the Downeaster’s schedule in 2007, the train serves some 300,000 passengers per year. Maine’s interstate carries that many people on a single summer day. The Downeaster has been very successful and is a critical link and important to our citizens and our tourism industry. Still, let’s be honest about what it can and cannot do. The train, while successful, has had little impact on traffic congestion to date, and the jury is out on whether it will have significant impact in the future. So why are we bashing highways and saying that passenger rail can fix our congestion problems?
The truth is, if we continue to underfund transportation in our state, both modernizing I-295 and extending train service will be out of our reach.
Consequently, we should make sure the critical decisions we make today, with funding in such short supply, address the safety of our citizens and economic viability for our communities. We need to set our priorities and stick to them. We need to balance today’s needs against our longer-term goals. The vast majority of our citizens and businesses use roads to commute to work and to recreate. Should there be alternatives? Of course. But I don’t believe they will replace the needs of our highway system. And the citizens agree. We know that when Maine voters overwhelmingly pass transportation bonds, what most inspires their vote is the highway and bridge component.
Address the gap, now
So what are we arguing about? The gap in funding on both state and federal levels is alarming, and we don’t have time to sit around and squabble about whether this bridge or that train is more deserving. We need to address the gap now.
Recently, the Maine Legislature passed MBTA’s bill, LD 1790: “An Act to Secure Maine’s Transportation Future.” The bill creates mechanisms for reversing the terrible deterioration of Maine’s transportation infrastructure. The new law provides the means for investing in highways and alternative modes, including passenger rail, transit and freight. What the law lacks is funding.
I encourage every one of you to get involved on a personal level in the “campaign” to revitalize our transportation infrastructure that the MBTA is currently championing. If we are successful, everyone will win with safer highways and bridges, thriving ports and rail – and the jobs and quality of life that come with a modern and efficient transportation network.