Investing in infrastructure, investing in Maine workers
By David Cole, Commissioner, MaineDOT
The gavel has come down on the 124th session of the Maine Legislature, and overall, Maine’s transportation sector did not fare too poorly. Governor Baldacci and the Maine Legislature stepped up, recognizing that investing in our infrastructure translates directly into investing in the Maine worker.
Our transportation system has daunting needs – a $3 billion investment over the next 10 years is necessary to meet our projected transportation needs. Considering our current economic situation, over the last six months, Maine’s transportation system has received quite a boost. We started out in January with no funds allocated for maintenance surface treatment (MST), and we ended with funding for over 600 miles. We started the session with no bonds on the horizon – no additional money for highway projects, and we finished with a bond package of which 82 percent is allocated for transportation projects, $24.8 million for highways alone. We were also faced with the knowledge that the Maine, Montreal & Atlantic Railway was filing to abandon roughly 240 miles of track in Aroostook County. We ended with a conceptual framework for continued operation in place, funding sources identified, and the commitment to ensure that freight rail service to The County remain intact.
These investments will directly affect roughly 1,500 workers in Maine, whether it’s through helping to preserve businesses along the Aroostook rail corridor, or the direct and indirect jobs created through the increase in highway construction. On the federal level, we received $14 million through Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants to support Maine’s “Three-Port Strategy,” that includes the Port of Portland, Port of Searsport and Port of Eastport. Maine, through the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, was awarded $35 million to extend the Amtrak Downeaster passenger train from Portland to Brunswick.
Our successes can be directly attributed to the teamwork that exists between the executive branch, the legislative branch, our federal delegation, community leaders and stakeholders such as the Maine Better Transportation Association, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, LEAD, AGC and many others. We are a team. From legislators who tirelessly advocate on the floor, and often times within their own caucus, for increased funding for our transportation infrastructure, sticking their neck out time and time again – to members of the transportation industry who have worked in the field for decades and are there day after day making sure that their voices, the stories of the people with boots on the ground, are heard. It is through the collaboration of this team that we are able to advance the cause and not only increase funding in these difficult times, but also explore innovative and creative means of doing business.
Although much work remains to be done, this collaboration has laid the groundwork towards preserving the Aroostook Rail Line. Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway announced their intent to abandon the 233 miles of track through Aroostook County late last summer. From early on, it became very clear that cutting off the County from rail services would be catastrophic – failure was not an option. It also became rather clear that the only viable option was for the state to purchase the line. From early bond discussions, it was evident that the funding for the purchase of the rail line was the lynchpin of the package.
Twenty-two businesses, with an estimated 750 to 1,000 jobs, are active rail shippers, dependent on this line. These companies, already experiencing serious economic challenges, would endure increased operating costs for the delivery of materials used in production, in turn making them less competitive in regional and national markets. Without continued rail service these firms may be forced to cut production levels, potentially resulting in layoffs. As the situation began to unfold at the legislative level, a strong, single message began to emerge from the team, and we all spoke with one united voice.
The rallying cry echoed throughout the halls of the State House during the final weeks of the session. Strategy sessions were held. Through our teamwork, the story was told of the devastating effects the loss of this line would have not only on the County, but also the entire state. We worked together and the result is an identified funding source and a task force charged with protecting the interest of the Maine taxpayers and ensuring transparency.
As I have said in the past, our current economy requires all of us that work in the business of transportation to lock arms, put our heads together, and move forward. Clearly, we did just that.