120 days – and counting jobs. With both the stimulus and the upcoming reauthorization, it’s about jobs and the economy.
By Gregory A. Dore
Beyond the stimulus. Congress gears up for the transportation reauthorization.
By Douglas Rooks
Meet the chairs. Interviews with the new Transportation Committee chairs.
By Maria Fuentes
Future of excise tax in question. Secretary of State certifies citizens’ initiative.
By Kathryn Buxton
69 going on 70. MBTA nears 70th anniversary.
By Kathryn Buxton
Future leaders encouraged. MBTA announces two new scholarships.
Rock star. Maine Drilling & Blasting’s Bill Purington.
120 days and counting jobs
After passage of the stimulus bill, Maine is moving fast to create jobs and fix our crumbling infrastructure – but the work has only just begun to repair our transportation and economy
by Gregory A. Dore, MBTA President
Transportation has been in the news a lot lately. More than usual, and that is thanks to several reasons. Foremost is a presidential campaign that focused on reinvesting in our transportation infrastructure as a way to stimulate our economy. Although the total amount of transportation funding in the recovery plan ended up being only 6 percent of the total package, the campaign and the ensuing legislation did increase awareness of transportation.
One benefit of all that attention is that the stimulus funding has hit the ground. Here in Maine there are projects already underway – and jobs being created and saved. In late February, MaineDOT announced that MBTA member Pike Industries was the low bidder on the first stimulus-funded project to be awarded – the reconstruction of a 23-mile stretch of I-295 from Topsham to Gardiner. Early figures suggest that project will mean 840 jobs, with the majority of them going to Maine residents, according to Pike Industries officials.
That’s only the beginning. MaineDOT has said it plans to obligate all of its $130 million or more in transportation stimulus windfall within 120 days – the deadline set by the U.S. Congress for committal of half of the funds. That will mean a sizable influx of family wage jobs – as many as 4,500 jobs – by mid-June. MaineDOT estimates that the total number of transportation jobs created by the stimulus, combined with the department’s 2009 planned spending, will be close to 11,000. That is good news and not a moment too soon, because Maine and the region are feeling the deepening effects of the recession. Unemployment is at the highest level in many years, and Maine needs these jobs badly.
Still, we can’t take our eye off the longer view, and that is a theme that runs throughout this issue of Maine Trails. The cover story, “Beyond the stimulus,” looks at the federal transportation reauthorization debate taking shape in Washington and interviews three leaders with front row seats to the debate: Congressman Mike Michaud, who sits on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee; MaineDOT Commissioner David Cole; and Jack Basso, of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
A second story about a recently released report by the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission talks about what is shaping up to be a big part of the debate – which funding options should the Congress consider as it tackles the reauthorization. With revenues from the federal gas tax failing to meet infrastructure needs, the commission found that it is time for “sweeping reforms.”
Here in Maine, we are tackling the issue of priorities for the upcoming biennial cycle. Governor John Baldacci has announced a $306 million “statewide stimulus plan” that includes $127.8 million in transportation bonding. It is a well-rounded package that contains significant increases in funding for rail, ports and transit. But while it is a good step during tough economic times, it still does not come close to funding the gap between transportation needs and funding. And we will never see the level of investment Maine needs in its highways, bridges, ports and rail until state and national leaders commit to reversing decades of neglect and underfunding.
That brings me back to my opening point. Maine needs the jobs – not just the kind of construction jobs that come directly from highway, port and rail funding. I mean the kind that come with significant, long-term and sustained investment in transportation. Investment like that supports economic development for our cities and towns and that makes it more cost-effective for businesses to transport their goods to markets around the world. It gives us access to participate in the global trade boom and that brings a wide variety of jobs and economic diversity to our state.
I hope that you will join the MBTA as we continue to work with state and national leaders to tackle these challenging issues – and continue to make investment in transportation infrastructure a priority. Watch your e-mail and the MBTA web site for updates – and when you can – let our leaders know that this is of vital importance to you, your families and communities. We have seen just how much can get done – and how many family wage jobs can be created – when our leaders take this message to heart!
Finally, I’d like to say thank you to the more than 400 individuals, organizations and businesses who have renewed their membership in the MBTA so far this year. Your support is so important to helping us in our work to make transportation in Maine safer and more efficient for all Mainers. We have many events coming up – Transportation Day in April and our 70th MBTA Annual Meeting in May.
I look forward to seeing you – and continuing the good work of MBTA together.
Beyond the stimulus
With passage of the stimulus behind them and the reauthorization debate ahead, Congress is looking for longer term solutions to the transportation funding gap.
By Douglas Rooks
The transportation dollars from the federal stimulus bill – the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 – are still being toted up at the state level, but already planning is under way for the six-year transportation reauthorization bill due by October 1.
The stimulus bill provides $27.6 billion for highways and bridges, $8.4 billion for transit, $9.3 billion for rail, and smaller amounts for aviation and other transportation programs. By all accounts, cash-starved state programs are eagerly awaiting the money. Maine’s share of $174 million includes $130.7 million for roads and $13.3 million for transit.
Still, the gap between existing funding and infrastructure needs has become so wide that it is clear that only a sustained federal-state effort will put transportation programs back on track.
In Maine, Transportation Commissioner David Cole said in a recent interview, the 20-year plan called Connecting Maine shows a $320 million average annual shortfall over the next 10 years. “We’re only expecting about half of what we should just to maintain the system and make a few new strategic investments,” he said.
The funding shortfalls just about every state has been feeling in recent years are about to be played out in Washington as well, he said. While the most recent six-year bill, known as SAFETEA-LU, was 20 months late with funding levels widely described as disappointing, “Most of the debate, and the delays, were about what programs should benefit, and what the state shares should be,” said Cole.
Even so, the federal Highway Trust Fund, that began the six-year funding cycle with a surplus, was drained quickly. For the first time in 2007, it faced an $8 billion deficit. Late last year, money had to be borrowed from general revenues to maintain scheduled payments to states.
So as Congress convenes to address the new authorization, the overriding issue, Cole said, will be: “How do we pay for transportation? The cupboard is bare.”
While the funding situation appears bleak, there are signs of hope, according to Jack Basso, director of program finance and management for AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials) in Washington.
Basso, who served on the new administration’s transition team for transportation appointees, said, “This is the first president in 30 years to have made repairing and improving infrastructure a key priority during his campaign.”
Presidential focus will be helpful, certainly, and Basso said the new Congress is already at work determining the shape the reauthorization will take. Things are furthest ahead in the House, where Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chair Jim Oberstar (D-Minnesota) is mapping out an ambitious schedule of hearings and mark-ups beginning as early as June.
Basso said the pace is more leisurely in the Senate, where three different committees will work on transportation issues. By what he called “an historical accident,” responsibility for transit issues rests with the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, while the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee deals with safety and rail issues. The meat and potatoes of federal funding, the highway and bridge program, however, is the responsibility of the Environment and Public Works Committee.
Coordinating all these elements takes some doing, Basso said, but over time, the Senate usually has been supportive of transportation needs. “We don’t question how they do it, as long as they get the job done,” he said. “As they say, it’s not a good time to slip onto the dance floor when the elephants are dancing.”
Maine’s Commissioner Cole expresses skepticism about a new Congress working that quickly. He said he thinks a continuing resolution for some period after Oct. 1 is likely – though it should be considerably less than 20 months. Getting the job done right, he said, is more important than doing it quickly.
The stimulus bill definitely has primed the pump for a Congress that will soon be focused on assessing the nation’s transportation needs and priorities, Basso said. He noted that the $27.6 billion slated for highways and bridges, most of which is expected to be spent within a year, compares to $43 billion in this year’s SAFETEA-LU allocation. “This is a big, big program,” he said, and added that, “We’re comfortable with where it takes us in setting up reauthorization.”
Financing for a new six-year bill is a subject Congress is approaching gingerly, given the current economic crisis. Yet both House and Senate committees are expected to give serious consideration to recommendations released recently by the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission.
On Feb. 26, the 15-member bipartisan panel recommended that the federal gasoline tax be raised by 10 cents a gallon from its current rate of 18.4 cents. It also called for a 15-cent increase in the federal diesel tax, now 24.4 cents per gallon. Revenues from both increases would be targeted to long-term highway improvements.
The commission also recommended a switch to a mileage-based system of electronic sensors on cars that would monitor miles driven and charge accordingly. A handful of states are currently testing such systems. The gas tax, even at the higher recommended level, is “not sustainable in the long term and is likely to erode more quickly than previously thought,” the commission said, as drivers switch to more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Even though it’s early, Cole said that Maine has several issues it hopes will attract attention and win support during the reauthorization debate.
One is truck weights, a long-time priority of MaineDOT and the Maine Legislature’s Transportation Committee. Winning approval to operate 100,000-pound tractor-trailers on the full interstate system, not just the Maine Turnpike, would immediately improve the efficiency of the system, Cole said. “Since the extra weight is almost all payloads, there’s no question that we’ll save energy and reduce the burden on our secondary roads that now get this traffic,” he said.
Yet the prolonged discussion over the issue has convinced him that not all states see it the same way. Since Maine is “surrounded by states and provinces that have 100,000-pound trucks or higher,” it might be better to pursue the weight increase as a pilot project for Maine.
“We’ve done the studies, and we’ve shown the benefits for us,” he said. And while Maine can look for other opportunities to put a pilot program in place, the reauthorization bill is the most likely avenue. “That’s the place you’re most likely to deal with policy,” he said.
Cole said that increased public awareness of Maine as a competitor in global markets makes it important for transportation leaders and planners to shift their focus.
“We have to devote a lot more attention to managing this large, complex system we call transportation,” he said. “We’re not just public works directors any more.”
Serving on the freight subcommittee for AASHTO, he said, has made him more aware not only of the interconnectedness of transportation systems, but of the economic opportunities it can offer Maine.
“If you talk to manufacturers, they all say the key issues are transportation and energy, their availability and costs,” he said. “And transportation is an energy issue, too, since it makes up one-third of our carbon footprint.”
Maximizing opportunities for intermodal connections, he said – with ports, rail and even passenger modes – “would be the best outcome for the state economy, no question.”
Another priority for Maine will be an attempt to extend the current federal funding for the Downeaster passenger train. The money comes from a program called CMAQ (Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality) from which each state gets a designated share. CMAQ grants are usually for three years, and the Downeaster has been extended once already. “We’d like to see it become a permanent exemption,” Cole said. “If the state wants to spend the money this way, we don’t see any reason it shouldn’t be able to.”
Cole said that Maine isn’t looking for funding for a Sears Island container port through federal reauthorization, “although anything they’d provide would be welcome,” he said.
The current marketing plan for the container port calls for a private developer to build the facility that would be located on the one-third of the island designated for this purpose; the remaining two-thirds carries a conservation easement under a recent executive order from Gov. Baldacci. This is a shift in policy from the construction of the Mack Point terminal opposite Sears Island. The state funded that project and then leased it to the private firms operating the facility.
Cole said that these days, private funding is the trend, and he offers two examples: two new Canadian ports that are under construction or far along in permitting – one on Prince Rupert Island in British Columbia, and the other in Nova Scotia. Both have private investors.
With the economic slowdown and credit crunch, Cole said, “It may take a bit longer, but all the experts say that container traffic should triple over the next 20 years. It’s a big market.”
Cole said Maine may benefit from new federal interest in transit and rail to launch some new initiatives, such as commuter rail to Portland from the Auburn area. “It’s going to take a long time to happen, but we have to start planning now if we want to take advantage,” he said.
Whatever Congress decides this fall, it is unlikely to complete the nation’s recovery from a long period of infrastructure neglect. Basso calls it “a long game of catch up that will continue for a long time.”
He notes that a report on infrastructure needs that was authorized by SAFETEA-LU and completed in December 2007, found that the federal government is spending only 40 percent of what would be required to fully fund identified needs – a projected $90 billion in spending against needs of $225 billion.
He said that, in one sense, the infrastructure deficit rivals the national debt as an issue Congress must contend with. “There’s no question that it would take a massive investment to get us back on track.”
Cole sees the question partly through the lens of economic competition. “China, India and Europe have all put transportation strategies at the center of their economic plans,” he said. “If we want to compete, we’ll have to consider doing the same thing.”
Meet the chairs
MBTA Executive Director Maria Fuentes recently spoke with the chairs of the 124th Maine Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Transportation about the stimulus, the role transportation has in Maine’s economy, the most critical state needs and other important issues facing the state and its transportation system.
Do you think Maine will see real benefits from the federal stimulus package? If so/not, why?
Sen. Damon: Yes, because we have such needs and, although it doesn’t come anywhere near solving the need, $130 million will definitely help. My fear with the stimulus is that people will see it as the cure, the fix, the final answer and that is so far from reality. Our transportation needs are in the billions (with a capital “B”), and $130 million is, indeed, only a start.
Rep. Mazurek: Yes, there will be real benefits in putting people back to work and in improving our infrastructure. Most of the benefits will be relatively short-term, but some will be long-term, such as the I-295 project from Topsham to Gardiner. The benefits of that project will go far beyond the life of the stimulus.
What about Maine’s transportation infrastructure has hurt the state’s economy and what has helped?
Sen. Damon: The economy of Maine is negatively impacted whenever: a truckload of goods cannot drive on the roads because of posted weights; a truckload of goods cannot cross a bridge and has to drive extra distances to get to market; people – in the normal course of driving – have to shell out hundreds of dollars to repair damage to their vehicles from driving our deteriorated roads.
When we’ve been able to make the needed repairs to our infrastructure, that has put people to work, and that helps our economy.
Rep. Mazurek: It has helped those areas around the interstate; conversely, others who are not along that corridor have suffered. The state’s best road is the interstate, but it only covers a narrow strip of Maine. We don’t have good east-west connections beyond the interstate. We need strong arteries beyond I-95, whether it is roads or rail. The areas of the state that are lacking are the ones that typically don’t have strong economic development. The communities that are along a strong road or rail network are generally doing better than those that aren’t.
What is the most critical transportation need facing the state? What about facing the people in your district?
Sen. Damon: I don’t know where to start. The obvious answer is building our road and bridge system to allow for safe and efficient movement of goods and people. Another need is that of a greater and more focused concentration on our marine port and rail system. That would be very beneficial to existing businesses and to those who may be enticed to locate here.
In my district, it’s finding a way to move the traffic that gridlocks in and around Ellsworth and Mount Desert Island. Also, the Route 3 corridor going into Bar Harbor is substandard and inadequate for the volume of traffic. It is certainly not appropriate to lead people to the beauty of Acadia National Park.
Rep. Mazurek: Money – or lack of it – is the biggest challenge or need facing my district and Maine. We need a good, steady revenue source. Indexing the fuel tax is not meeting the need. People are driving less now, and I believe people have altered their behavior and will continue to drive less, even if fuel prices stay low. We are missing the boat if we continue to rely on an old funding method like the gas tax, even when people are driving less.
The CanAm Connections study discusses transportation infrastructure in the Northeast border corridor and its effects on economic development. What steps do you think Maine should take to remove the barriers to global trade opportunities?
Sen. Damon: The first thing we should do is get a port permitted on Sears Island and get a container facility built there. Sears Island, as a cargo port, working in conjunction with Mack Point as a break bulk operation, would position Maine very strategically in global trade routes.
Rep. Mazurek: We need to improve our freight connections and be more competitive – as a region – in moving goods. We have a strong marine system, but we need to improve it. For example, expanding the port of Portland will help our freight system, as will developing Eastport and Mack Point. Sears Island is a great opportunity to improve freight in the region. We need a port there.
The Highway Fund structural gap is six times that of the General Fund. Do you support increasing revenues to go into
the state’s Highway Fund?
Sen. Damon: The current model for funding our Highway Fund budget has inherent inadequacies. Though at one time, simply charging a tax on fuel might have been enough to fund our projects, it no longer serves the need. We have to look at every possible alternative, including but not limited to additional user fees for those who use our roads and bridges.
Rep. Mazurek: Yes, I do. One possibility would be a surcharge on gas, with a sunset once prices hit a certain point. We also need to take a strong look at tolls. Something has to be done; we are spinning our wheels. We cannot rely on the fuel tax as a revenue source.
It clearly has seen better days.
Which airport do you most frequently fly out of? How many times a year do you fly?
Sen. Damon: The Bar Harbor-Hancock County Airport located in Trenton. Typically I fly about 10 times per year.
Rep. Mazurek: It depends on where I am going, but I tend to fly out of Portland or Boston. The number of times I fly varies.
Have you ever taken a ferry in Maine? Which ones? How frequently?
Sen. Damon: Yes, numerous times. I am privileged to count island communities within my district, and I have ridden on the ferries of the Maine State Ferry System and other private ferry services. It’s always curious to me when people say we don’t charge for our transportation services except for the Maine Turnpike. But when people travel to their homes on the islands, they pay dearly. It costs me $17 each way, without a vehicle, to travel to Isle au Haut to meet my constituents. Now, that’s a toll.
Rep. Mazurek: Yes, I take the ferry only occasionally now, but I used to take the ferry from Rockland to Vinalhaven and North Haven once a week for my job.
How many miles a year do you drive? Where are the majority of those miles driven?
Sen. Damon: Last year I drove 34,728 miles – throughout Maine.
Rep. Mazurek: 12,000 to 16,000 miles per year. Most of those miles are on Route 17 going back and forth to the state house.
What is the most common constituent complaint you hear about transportation?
Sen. Damon: The condition of the roads and the potholes in front of the caller’s house. Those may not be the most serious problems, but they’re the most serious to the people who are calling, and they are indicative of the condition of our infrastructure.
Rep. Mazurek: They complain about the roads, particularly in the spring, when roads get posted. I hear from folks working in the fishing and bait industries, as well as from the dirt haulers, whose livelihood is impacted when roads are closed. The most frequent complaint I get is probably from people who don’t like that we are putting calcium chloride on our roads.
How have your transportation/commuting habits changed in the last year?
Sen. Damon: Because of the gas prices, I have made conscious decisions about whether or not I really need to go to some meetings. I have also taken advantage of a transit system in my district. The Island Explorer bus system is a marvel and should be a model for transit systems throughout Maine.
Rep. Mazurek: Yes, we do more walking in town. We try to only use the car when we are going out of town. I think a lot of communities would benefit from using golf carts or zap [electric] cars, especially as our population is aging.
What are the worst and best roads you frequently travel on?
Sen. Damon: A road that ranks poorly is Route 230 - the Oak Point Road in Trenton. That road has seen a tremendous increase in commuter traffic because of the traffic volume on Route 3 and at the same time, many new homes have been built along it, compounding the need for an improved road.
The best road in Maine may be the Maine Turnpike. It is no coincidence that one pays to travel on that road, and it is in good condition as a result.
Rep. Mazurek: The worst road is Old County Road between Route 1 and Route 17 in Rockland. The best is I-95, with Route 17 being the second best.
Future of excise tax in question
Maine cities and towns face reduced revenues – and a November citizen referendum that could gut funds available for local roads.
Holden town manager John Butts is keeping a wary eye on the excise tax these days. With the slow economy affecting sales of new cars, a pending statewide voter referendum calling for a reduction in the excise tax in November and the town budget planning process underway, predicting the town’s share of excise tax revenues is proving problematic.
He said he plans to present two scenarios to his town council this spring. The first is based on status quo projections of the town’s excise tax revenues. If the referendum goes to vote and passes, “then I’ll start doing the amputations,” said Butts.
“We’ve gleaned out almost all the efficiencies from our budget that we can,” said Presque Isle Town Manager Tom Stevens. “If the city’s excise tax revenues are significantly reduced, the question may become, will we be able to continue to provide the current level of services, yes or no?”
In late February, Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap announced that a citizen’s initiative to reduce the motor vehicle excise tax had been certified. Of the 67,672 signatures collected by the tax advocacy group, Maine Leads, 56,546 of the signatures were declared valid. (The state requires 55,087 valid signatures to approve a citizen referendum.) Now, the Maine Legislature must approve the referendum before it is included on the November ballot.
On a new vehicle, the excise tax is $24 per $1,000 of the sticker price. The tax declines to $17.50 per $1,000 of the vehicle’s value in the second year; $13.50 in the third; $10 in the fourth; $6.50 in the fifth; and $4 in the sixth and remaining years of the vehicle. If the referendum passes, the rate for new cars will be slashed in half, and there is a provision to waive sales tax and the first three years of excise tax on high-mileage and hybrid vehicles.
In 2007, the excise tax on automobiles generated $207.9 million in revenue statewide. If passed, excise tax revenues are expected to decline by between 34 to 43 percent. (Maine Municipal Association estimates revenues will drop by $88 million; Maine Leads predicts a $77 million decrease.)
The excise tax, in theory, is a user fee. Towns are not required to use excise tax receipts on paving programs; still for many, there is a correlation between the rise and fall of excise tax revenues and the extent of a town’s paving program.
In many of Maine’s cities and towns, excise tax revenues have already been experiencing a decline as the region’s economy has slowed. In Holden, midway through the current fiscal year, town manager Butts said Holden had seen a 9 percent decline in excise tax revenues. He said that the town had already taken steps to absorb the drop. “Now, if the referendum passes, that’s going go hurt us quite a bit,” said Butts.
In Saco, Public Works Director Mike Bolduc said the city projects a $511,000 decrease in excise tax revenues in the city’s 2009-2010 budget if the referendum passes. The following year, revenue would fall off even more by approximately $1 million. That has many in Saco – and in other Maine towns – concerned about what will happen to their road programs. Bolduc said that, while excise taxes are not solely dedicated to the Saco’s road program, “our paving program is obviously going to suffer” if the referendum passes.
69 going on 70
As the Maine Better Transportation Association heads toward its 70th anniversary, a look back shows that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
by Kathryn Buxton
The maine good roads association was founded in hard times. The year was 1939, and the country was recovering from the Great Depression. The early members of the group consisted of local community and business leaders, forward thinking individuals who were concerned about how Maine was going to finance the rebuilding of a state highway system that had fallen into dangerous disrepair through poor maintenance and neglect.
Those leaders also saw opportunities in transportation – that if Maine could modernize its transportation system, it would help restore economic viability to the state. They had their work cut out for them.
Even before the Depression, the state had been struggling to manage its massive inventory of roads adequately. The Maine State Highway Commission was a woefully small and underfunded arm of state government. And without the means to modernize the system, the future of Maine’s highway network – and its economy – struggled.
Thus on September 25, 1939, the Maine Good Roads Association was formed, and its members never looked back. Today, the organization has 700 members and goes by a different name – the Maine Better Transportation Association. It also follows a broadened mission that incorporates a wide range of transportation modes – roads, aviation, marine, transit, bicycle and pedestrian. Still, the seeds of its current role in the public debate on transportation infrastructure were sown during those early days.
“The driving force has always been funding, but our mission has broadened,” explained Robert Desjardins, who joined Maine Good Roads during the 1960s at the urging of Chuck Cianchette, one of his bosses at Cianchette Brothers. Desjardins became president of Maine Good Roads in 1980 and went on to receive the organization’s highest honor – the Maine Transportation Achievement Award.
How to fund or not to fund
The first years of the organization’s existence were active and focused. The association’s first order was to push the legislature for an amendment dedicating Highway Fund revenue solely for highway purposes. It passed in 1944. The association had found its calling.
Another of Maine Good Roads’ first big projects was advocating for the construction of a modern highway that would connect Maine with New Hampshire, Boston and eventually the Maritimes. There was no public source of funding for this new highway, and so the organization backed the formation of the Maine Turnpike Authority that could pay for the construction from future toll revenues. It was a grand and ambitious project, but Maine Good Roads and its board believed it would be in the state’s best interest.
The first stretch of that highway, from Kittery to Portland, was completed in 1947, and today the road remains the most critical commercial link for the state.
Also in those early years, the organization launched publication of The Maine Trail, a magazine devoted to discussion of the issues. The first issue was published in April 1941. Its mission: a “common ground for a frank discussion of our highway problems.”
Over the next 40 years, much of the organization’s efforts were devoted to averting diversion of money from the state’s Highway Fund and efforts to establish a funding source – fuel taxes and other state fees – that could adequately support the state’s highway system.
The topic of the arguments – to fund or not to fund – have not changed. Neither has the intensity. Still, the path of the discussion has shifted as the times have demanded, said John Bridge, a 50-year Maine Good Roads/MBTA member whose father, Chester, was a charter member of the organization. The Maine Transportation Achievement Award winner remembers going to the organization’s September conventions as a boy with his family and, in a sense, grew up with the organization. When he looks back, he sees changes in the organization’s advocacy that reflected major political shifts over the past seven decades.
During the early years, he said, user fees funded the biggest projects, principally tolls and the gas tax. But that changed over the next two decades.
“Back in the ’50s and ’60s, ‘pay as you go’ was preferred,” said Bridge who worked on some of the biggest highway projects of the past six decades – including reconstruction of Route 17 between Augusta and Rockland, construction of the interstate and Route 9 from South China to Hampden.
He said with the federal government’s role in building the interstate and the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, the focus shifted away from tolls to an increased role for the gas tax.
More recently, he said, the shift has been to more reliance on bonding and, he notes, the process has become increasingly political, as well. That means that when lawmakers begin to discuss options including raising the gas tax or introducing a toll or a new user fee, the discussion gets bogged down by lawmakers who say “no tax increases, not on my shift.”
Bridge said that is a shame, because more often than not Mainers have shown their willingness to pay for what they want – and that’s why transportation bond referendums pass with such comfortable margins, year after year.
“Everyone agrees in principle that we need to fix our roads and bridges,” said Bridge, “but there hasn’t always been the political will in the legislature to do what’s needed, despite strong support of the general public.”
Still, Richard Martin, another former organization president and Maine Transportation Achievement Award winner, sees hope in the recent public discussions that have arisen around funding concepts such as mileage fees, tolls, public-private partnerships and projects like the private east-west highway being developed by Peter Vigue. He said we must come up with new funding options. “We can’t just rely on the gas tax,” said Martin.
While the means for funding transportation has been a consistent theme throughout the life of the organization, the 1980s saw a fundamental change for the organization.
“I joined in the late ’50s and until the early ’80s, it was pretty similar every year,” said Martin. He recalled how the membership was mostly contractors and every year, after a long hard summer, they would have a convention at the old Samoset Resort in Rockland. While Maine Good Roads had begun with the mission of promoting the importance of modern highways to a healthy state economy, the group “wasn’t as business-like as it is now,” said Martin.
He noted that by the late ’70s, it was becoming clear the organization would need to reinvent itself if it were to survive. Membership was static and the organization was nearly broke. “We had to diversify and get new members,” said Martin.
After 44 years, the organization changed its name and its mission. The new name, Maine Better Transportation Association, signaled a broader advocacy that encompassed all forms of transportation – rail, marine, transit and aviation. The mission change injected new life into the organization.
Martin, who worked with H.E. Sargent for 40 years and now runs a consulting business, said those changes positioned the organization for the tumultuous decade ahead. During the 80s and early ’90s, the state began to look at how a robust and interconnected transportation network encompassing all the modes could benefit the state’s economy and preserve its quality of life.
Changing the name and broadening the organization’s mission “was one of the two best decisions we have made as an organization,” said Martin. By taking on the bigger picture of transportation in the state, it has given the MBTA stronger voice, he said, and that has been essential, as the organization has tackled the big issues of the past two decades.
Martin said that hiring Maria Fuentes as the organization’s executive director was the other significant decision the MBTA board made during that era. Fuentes came on board in the early ’90s and has steered the group through many changes. Martin noted that it was after Fuentes joined, the MBTA began to attract a larger and more diverse membership. “Things really started to happen when we hired her,” said Martin. “We carry a lot more weight around the state now because of Maria.”
From leading a public referendum campaign to widen the Maine Turnpike in 1997 to advocating for transportation funding reform and passage of LD 1790: An Act to Secure Maine’s Transportation Future in 2007, the group has kept the need for a safe, efficient transportation network at the forefront of the public agenda in Maine. The group also has campaigned for passage of bond referendums over the past 40 years in which voters have approved hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for roads, bridges, airports, rail, trails, ports and ferries.
The group has made other changes as well. The MBTA board established the MBTA Infrastructure Fund in 1996 to create a war chest that would give the group the resources it needed to raise awareness about critical transportation issues. The group also decided to focus on the future of the industry and try to encourage more young people to pursue transportation careers in the state. The board founded the MBTA Educational Foundation in 2000, a tax-exempt, non-profit charitable organization that awards scholarships to deserving Maine students studying transportation-related fields of study. Since its inception, the foundation has raised more than $250,000 and awarded dozens of scholarships.
During the early years, Maine Good Roads began a tradition that continues today - the annual fall convention. The event comes at a critical point in the transportation industry’s annual cycle, after summer tourists leave the state and more than half of the way through Maine’s heavy construction season. Desjardins remembers the first time he attended the fall convention, he felt instantly at ease.
“We always had a good time at the conventions. Everyone works hard all summer, and you look forward to the convention and being able to relax,” said Desjardins. He credits the organization’s success with the balance it achieves between its serious mission and the members’ sense of collegiality.
In recent years, the convention and its annual summer golf tournament have become important fundraisers for the educational foundation and the MBTA Infrastructure Fund. That generosity and commitment to advancing the transportation industry is very much in the spirit of the organization that was founded during hard times in 1939.
“Everyone works hard and is very competitive,” said Bridge adding that everyone is quick to put that competitiveness aside to work together for common industry goals. “This is a generous group,” said Bridge.
This spring the MBTA Educational Foundation kicks off the first call for applicants for two new scholarships: the MBTA Kenneth W. Burrill Scholarship; and the MBTA Transportation Trailblazer Scholarship.
The MBTA Transportation Trailblazer Schol-ar--ship is a $1,500 award that will go to a student studying in a transportation-related field, who has demonstrated an interest in transportation and shows promise as a future advocate for the industry in Maine. It is a departure from other scholarships funded by the foundation. Foundation members plan on actively recruiting students to apply. Currently the foundation’s other scholarships are publicized through the state’s university and community college system.
“We wanted to create a scholarship that would help us identify young people with an interest in transportation and encourage them to make it their passion,” said Deborah Dunlap Avasthi, chair of the MBTA Educational Foundation. “We know that kids who grow up around construction, trains, ports, engineering and with parents in other transportation-related fields have the potential of becoming the industry’s leaders of tomorrow.”
The MBTA Kenneth W. Burrill Scholarship is another new scholarship that represents a change for the organization. The scholarship fund was championed by MBTA member John Bridge, who was a close friend and one-time employer of Ken. The scholarship was funded by Bridge and many other MBTA members who wanted to remember their friend and colleague Ken Burrill, a former MBTA president and Maine Transportation Achievement Award winner. Ken was a rare liberal arts major in a profession filled with planners and engineers.
“Ken had a passion for construction and a passion for politics,” said Maria Fuentes, MBTA executive director. “He was very good at raising awareness of the need to improve Maine’s business climate through increased investment in our infrastructure.”
Burrill served in various capacities in the construction industry in Maine. He had a long history with H.E. Sargent and affiliated companies. His last construction job was as president of Bridgecorp. The final portion of his career was dedicated to owning and running his own consulting company, where he wove together his various talents, including strong technical skills, and exceptional communications skills.
“The foundation is really looking at what it will take to not only encourage more young people to pursue transportation careers, but for the industry to thrive. You need talent and new ideas, and that’s what these new scholarships are all about,” said Dunlap Avasthi.
For more information about the two new scholarships and applications, visit www.mbtaonline.org or call 207-622-0526.
MBTA Kenneth W. Burrill Scholarship criteria
The Kenneth W. Burrill scholarship is available to any Maine resident accepted or already enrolled in a transportation-related program at any post-secondary institution in Maine. Preference will be given to students who have worked in the transportation or construction field, or who have shown other indications that construction is their career of choice.
Preference may be given to a student who meets one of the following criteria:
- a liberal arts background, with an interest in a construction career;
- is enrolled in an engineering or construction management program, and has demonstrated the express desire to work in the construction industry;
- has volunteered or raised money for infrastructure issues in Maine.
MBTA Kenneth W. Burrill Scholarship applications will be available online: www.mbtaonline.org or by calling 207-622-0526. Deadline for applications is May 30, 2009 for the 2009-2010 academic year.
MBTA Transportation Trailblazer Scholarship criteria
The MBTA Transportation Trailblazer scholarship is open to any Maine student who meets the criteria, including students already enrolled in a degree program, or recently accepted to one, and with a demonstrated financial need. Preference may be given to students who have worked in the transportation or construction field, or who have shown other indications that construction or transportation is their career of choice.
Relevant fields of study include (but are not limited to): civil engineering, construction management, construction trades, marine, rail or aviation studies, heavy equipment operation, diesel mechanics or other such programs.
Students who are active MBTA members, or family members of active MBTA members may apply, as may students with an interest in advocating for increased investment in Maine’s transportation infrastructure.
MBTA Transportation Trailblazer Scholarship applications are available at www.mbtaonline.org or by calling 207-622-0526. The deadline for completed applications is May 30, 2009 for the 2009-2010 academic year.
A recent spate of industry and business awards has thrust Maine Drilling & Blasting’s Bill Purington into the public spotlight
Bill purington doesn’t sound like a “rock star.” He sounds humble, down-to-earth, and characteristically low-key when having to answer questions about himself and his achievements during an early morning phone interview from Maine Drilling & Blasting’s (MD&B) offices in Gardiner.
Still “rock star” is how U.S. Senator Susan Collins described the central Maine businessman when she introduced Purington at the recent Kennebec Valley Chamber’s annual awards ceremony in January.
“In the construction industry here in Maine and around the country, Bill truly is a rock star,” said Collins as she presented Purington with the chamber’s Business Person of the Year award. “And before you blame me for a bad pun, let me remind you that Bill chose for his company slogan ‘Setting Earth-Shattering Standards Since 1966.’”
Purington admits to being more than a little surprised by all the attention he has been getting lately – and by what it all means.
Purington first heard last fall he was to receive the award. It was just after he had received the Major Achievement in Construction award from AGCMaine. Knowing that awards like these often were given at the end of a career, he admits to being a little taken aback, because he considers himself to be anywhere but near retirement.
“I was honored and very appreciative, but I began to ask myself, ‘What’s going on here? Is there something I need to know about?’” joked Purington.
Purington is clearly uncomfortable accepting kudos for the phenomenal success of his family’s business, and he admits to being “conflicted” about all of the attention. He says that is because MD&B is and always has been a family business. “How do you recognize one family member over the others who have given so much to the business?” asked Purington. He is also quick to give credit to the wide circle of family, friends and business associates for the role they have played in MD&B’s success.
“Growth and success is all about people in business,” said Purington in his acceptance speech. He thanked his wife and family, the Kennebec Valley Chamber and other business organizations for the support they give businesses like MD&B. He said that none of his achievements would have been posssible “without good people behind the scenes lobbying for commerce and the community.”
MD&B was founded in 1966 when Bill’s dad and mother, Ted and Judy Purington, borrowed $2,000 to get the company off the ground. Over the past 42 years, the company has been built on hard work, honesty and quality of service. Those were characteristics his father drummed into Bill and his brothers, Ted, Jr., Jim and Tom – characteristics that have guided the firm to this day.
Like his brothers, Bill grew up in the business, and being a part of the family business has had its challenges, said Purington.
“My dad was a very demanding person. He had a lot of expectations for us.”
For instance, all the sons were expected to pull their weight in the business. By the age of 14, Bill and his brothers were all working. Bill worked in the family business through his high school years (he attended Gardiner Area High School). He graduated high school in 1977, and it was at that point, he decided the family business wasn’t for him.
“I didn’t want anything to do with it,” Purington said, explaining his decision to attend college. His brothers Ted Jr., Jim and Tom joined MD&B. But Bill went off to earn an associate degree in engineering technology from Keene State College and then a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering with a minor in business administration from the University of New Hampshire.
After graduation, he went on to work as a research and marketing engineer for Bay Head Machinery in New Hampshire. In 1982, he was on his way to work in California when the call came asking him to come back to MD&B as general manager. The company had seen rapid expansion during the 1970s and early 80s, but the fast growth – and a severe national economic downturn – had stretched the firm’s capacity to its limits.
With his business experience, Bill immediately reorganized the company and modified its business plan. The new plan called for expansion, because MD&B’s new general manager saw that if the business was to grow, it needed room to grow. The biggest impediment? Maine’s short construction season.
“We would work our tails off during the season here in Maine and then spend the next five months trying to hold on to whatever we had,” said Purington. “You don’t have to go too far to see the opportunities of a longer season.”
Compared to Maine, where the company’s crew and equipment would lie idle for up to five months out of the year, Purington saw the extended seasonal opportunities in nearby states. In Connecticut, the season offered 10 or 11 months of solid work, with only one or two months of down time. Even in New Hampshire, MD&B crews could be working one or two more months out of the year.
Purington also brought a new management style to the business. He instituted a more formal corporate culture – based on the tenets of hard work, honesty and customer service espoused by his father – that professionalized the company. The result has been a workplace culture with a family-like sense of commitment and loyalty, a place where top quality people choose to work.
Purington is quick to share the credit for the company’s growth with his father and brothers. His father, he said, established a rock-solid foundation for the company and instilled a strong work ethic in his children. His brothers developed the technical expertise and operational experience that earned the company respect on every job it performs. Thanks to them, said Bill, MD&B, stands on the leading edge of blasting technology and safety.
He also credits the men and women he works with daily for their role in helping to build the company. “Our success is all about damn good people,” said Purington at the awards ceremony. “We have people that are willing to manage risk and change on a daily basis. Enthusiastic and engaged people. People caring to do more than what they have to do, willing to do what is right.”
To recognize its employees’ contributions, MD&B instituted an employee stock option plan in 2004 and, as of 2007, the employees owned 22 per cent of the company.
Today, MD&B is a powerhouse in the industry. It has offices in six states, more than a dozen distribution facilities, 12 bulk trucks, more than 100 drilling rigs, a company-designed modular bulk program, including six micro-pumpers for smaller, local jobs, and stands on the leading edge of blasting technology and safety.
MD&B recently acquired Atlantic Blasting of Milton, Massachusetts, giving the business a firmer foothold in that corner of the region. While the first two decades of the business were built on expansion of the interstate system, more recently, the company has taken advantage of opportunities in renewable energy – including work on wind farms and geothermal installations.
Purington sees renewable energy – and strategic investments in infrastructure – as being essential as the region struggles to recover from the current recession. He talks about surviving the inflation and high interest rates during the late 1970s and the deep recession that hit New England from 1989 to 1991.
He talks about MD&B’s efforts to build its business and diversify without over-leveraging assets.
That same kind of financial good sense and strategic planning, he said, would help Maine weather the challenging times ahead. As you would expect from someone with a strong business background, he talks in terms of a business balance sheet and how spending on social programs has outpaced the state’s revenue-generating investments.
He said Maine needs a better financial platform for maintaining a safe and efficient transportation network because transportation is so fundamental to a healthy business climate. Preserving a dedicated fuel tax is part of the solution, but so is looking at other options, including perhaps, tolls.
“We absolutely, definitely have to be creative,” said Purington. He said Maine needs to be thinking ahead and using the resources it has to the best advantage. That means building an east-west highway with public and/or private funding and taking advantage of the state’s geographic connections with Canada. He believes Maine should use its ports more effectively and support investment in new energy sources, including tidal power and liquid natural gas.
“We need a business mindset,” said Purington. “We need to get government in balance, or it won’t work.”