10 stories that shaped Maine transportation in 2008
The past year was an eventful one in transportation, from historic increases in construction material costs to wildly fluctuating fuel costs. Maine Trails looks back at some of the stories that made the news during the past 12 months and that promise to shape the transportation industry for years to come.
by Kathryn Buxton
1. Maine’s bridge ‘watch list’ grows – significantly.
In late 2007, Governor Baldacci’s office released “Keeping Our Bridges Safe,” a report that found that Maine’s bridges were safe, but in decline and in need of an additional $50-60 million in annual funding. To highlight matters, MaineDOT’s official bridge “watch list” grew by 31 percent, from 288 bridges in 2007 to 386 bridges in 2008.
2. Peter Vigue’s big idea gains traction.
The new chairman of the Cianbro Cos. became the most sought-after speaker in Maine, talking about his plan to build a private east-west toll highway from Calais to Coburn Gore. The 220-mile highway with a 2,000-foot right-of-way to be built on an already existing network of private roads and financed by private investors, will include utility transmission lines and will not be subject to federal weight restrictions. Vigue expects the one-way toll will be $125, a price shippers willingly will pay to trim travel time by two to four hours and hundreds of dollars from their fuel costs. The feasibility study was completed in April 2008, and permitting is expected to begin in 2009 with construction underway as early as 2011.
3. Maine’s transportation infrastructure gets a red flag.
For the second year running, the Maine Economic Growth Council “red flagged” transportation in its annual report on the Maine economy. The report found that Maine’s transportation infrastructure – particularly its network of highways and bridges – was the worst in the region. “Having quality transportation is critical for economic growth,” stated the report. “Improvements in all the modes of transportation – roads, rail, air and ports – make Maine more attractive to those interested in doing business here, and network Maine to the wider world.”
4. National commission calls for federal fuel tax increase.
This was an idea that was about 11 months before its time. The National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Commission caused quite a stir when it released its report “Transportation for Tomorrow” early in the year. The report called for an increase to the federal gas tax, which hasn’t changed in over a decade and is a major reason the federal Highway Trust Fund (HTF) is insolvent. Three of the 12-member commission refused to sign the report (including U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Mary Peters), and several members of Congress denounced the commission’s recommendation. But many believe that when Congress takes up the federal transportation authorization this year, the idea will gain broader support. Construction costs continue to increase, projections of the HTF deficit are growing, and already more public figures are calling for an increase – and for a stepped up effort to enact new transportation funding measures.
One reason gas tax watchers believe the increase may be more palatable to lawmakers: adding a few extra cents to the price of gas seems a lot less painful now that gas prices have plummeted from their $4-plus high in mid-2008.
5. Potholes become Public Enemy No. 1.
Potholes plagued Maine drivers and public works crews during first few months of 2008. The culprit was bad roads exacerbated by a snowy, wet winter and a relatively temperate spring with an extended freeze-and-thaw cycle that wreaked havoc on the state’s aging network of highways. MaineDOT spent more than $3.2 million on quick-fix patches, auto repair bills soared and both potholes and posted roads became the rallying cry of TV news reporters and editorial writers across the state.
The Portland Press Herald wrote about the phenomenon on its editorial page: “No doubt, state and local transportation officials are aware of the places where Maine’s aging infrastructure threatens to give way. It’s not that public works crews don’t know of the need; it’s that collectively, we don’t give the resources to fix every road bed or promptly patch each pothole.”
6. The Maine Legislature gets serious about transportation.
During the final days of the 123rd Maine Legislature, three bills totalling nearly $250 million in new transportation funding were passed. The bills included funding for bridge repair ($160 million), highway reconstruction ($50 million) and rail ($31 million). The new funding for highways and bridges was historic. It was the first time bonds were issued through the new TransCap Fund established with the passage of LD 1790. All three bills received broad bipartisan support, and MBTA Executive Director Maria Fuentes said that the legislature “clearly showed that investment in transportation was a priority and a cornerstone of their legislative agenda.”
7. Americans – and especially Mainers – drive less.
With gas over $4 and diesel oil peaking just under $5, transportation leaders worried about the effects on the industry this past summer’s rising prices would have in the years and the months ahead. This fall, even as pump prices fell, Mainers continued to curtail their driving and vehicle miles traveled (VMT) continued to fall. In fact, by the end of the year, monthly VMTs in Maine were down by 7.5 percent, a cause of concern for transportation officials that were witnessing parallel declines in fuel tax and toll revenues for the year. The declines prompted the Maine Turnpike Authority to move a planned toll increase up by a year, and the MaineDOT to begin rounds of cuts that included trimming 99 jobs from the department’s payroll in November.
8. The Patriot Corridor is born.
Early in 2008, Pan Am Railways and Norfolk Southern announced they were embarking on a joint venture to improve the flow of freight rail through the northeast. The Patriot Corridor will include a 155-mile high-speed freight-rail route between Mechanicville , New York and Ayer, Massachusetts, and a $40 million intermodal and automotive rail logistics center in Saratoga County, New York. The corridor also connects to 281 miles of secondary and branch lines in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Maine and Vermont. The partnership promises to benefit Maine. MRG Inc./Downeast Rail President Jack Sutton told Maine Trails earlier this year that the deal would have “indirect, but substantive benefits” to Maine shippers. And Pan American Railways President David Fink said that there is talk of re-opening the intermodal center in Waterville. Construction of the Saratoga center is slated to begin in first-quarter 2009 and conclude in April 2010 pending the completion of the permitting process.
A new word entered the Maine vernacular during the spring of 2008 – “rubblize” – when the MaineDOT announced it planned to shut down an 18-mile section of southbound I-295 between Gardiner and Topsham. The shut down enabled construction crews from Pike Industries to break up the highway’s crumbling concrete roadway and replace it with an asphalt surface in little more than three months. The gutsy move, undertaken during the peak of the summer travel season, saved Mainers considerable headaches down the line. The department estimates the job would have taken up to three years to complete – and cost several million dollars more – if they had allowed restricted traffic on that section of the highway.
10. Maine becomes the center of a new ‘mega region.’
Maine is poised to take center stage of the CanAm “mega region,” says a groundbreaking study that was previewed at a conference of the New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers in Bar Harbor in September. The study was spearheaded by MaineDOT and looked at the region-wide economic benefits associated with various transportation enhancements, including highway, rail and ports. MaineDOT Deputy Commissioner Greg Nadeau said that the study shows how “Maine can be the linchpin” between the resource-rich Maritimes and markets to the south and west, including Boston, Toronto and Chicago. Stay tuned: the final report is due soon and is expected to keep topics like the East-West Highway, port enhancements, rail and truck weights in the news.