A victory at the polls, and a lesson
This is my first column as president of the Maine Better Transportation Association, and I have to say I feel fortunate to take up the reins at a time when the organization is celebrating so many victories. We were able to accomplish a lot in the past year, thanks to the hard work of my predecessor Lauren Corey, the MBTA board, our members and the staff.
Most recently, the statewide bond transportation bond issue – Question 1 on the June 10 primary ballot – passed, even with a surprisingly light turnout at the polls. The $23 million transportation bond was part of a larger bond issue that included funding for natural resources bonds.
By recent standards, the $23 million wasn’t a very large chunk of funding. The majority of funding for the current biennium, a bond for another $113 million, was passed by voters in June 2007.
Out of sight, out of mind
Mainers were in an uproar this past winter and spring about the conditions of their roads and bridges. They were upset about potholes and worried about the safety of their families after the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis. They wanted their roads and bridges fixed. That public concern helped make the case for increased transportation funding in the Maine Legislature this past spring. And it helped us win some very important legislative victories – including $160 million in new bridge funding and $50 million in new highway funding. (The legislature also approved additional funding to expand passenger rail systems beyond Portland.)
Yet by the time the June vote came around, most of those potholes had been filled, and a lot of the urgency was behind us. Voters may not have made the connection between last winter’s potholes and this spring’s bond vote. And when they went to the polls, they passed the bond with 58 percent of the vote, a low number for popular transportation bonds.
The lesson in this “out-of-sight-out-of-mind” voter phenomenon is that public awareness of the need for transportation investment is vital to our future success.
During this past election, MBTA did not mount a television voter awareness campaign, because the size of this year’s bond made it difficult to raise money during tight fiscal times. While MBTA and MaineDOT generated news stories and other “earned” media, there was no paid advertising campaign. So most people going to the polls in June were unaware there was a bond issue on the ballot.
Another issue is that the transportation bond was combined with clean air and natural resources bonds – both important investments – but issues that don’t tend to garner as many votes as transportation bonds historically have.
Currently Maine and the nation are in the midst of an economic slowdown. Voters are likely to be more fiscally conservative in times like these, and competition for public money continues to increase.
We have many challenges ahead. Federal Highway Trust Fund revenues are falling. So are revenues to Maine’s Highway Fund. MaineDOT estimates it will need an additional $250 million annually to address our failing roads and bridges over the next 10 years.
Keeping up the pressure
Our job is clear. We need to be a major force in the effort to introduce new funding initiatives in the legislature. We need to be ready to take the case for transportation investment directly to the voters. Our job is to make sure that the public is aware of the great need for and great benefit of transportation investment in Maine.
Great MBTA presidents before me – Lauren Corey, Scott Leach and Tim Folster – have done so much already. I look forward to working with all of you in the next year as we continue to keep up the discussion – and the pressure – to get this work done.
I have another major goal for the coming year, too. As the head of the Skowhegan Public Works Department, I know first hand how closely the mission of the MBTA serves Maine’s cities and towns. Transportation is a lifeline for our families, businesses and communities, and I plan to use my presidency as a pulpit for that message and to encourage more municipal involvement in these issues.
It was good to see so many of you at the MBTA Washington County meeting in June and the Golf Classic in July. Still ahead is the Aroostook Meeting on August 14 and the Fall Convention at St. Andrews, September 12-14. Be sure to mark your calendar and join us. (Please note: While going to Canada doesn’t require a passport – an original birth certificate and license will do – many people are getting passports now as the application time has been greatly reduced.)
Thanks, too, for electing me president.
I look forward to working with you all as we make this a fun and productive year!