Questions of transportation
MBTA’s Maria Fuentes talks with Representatives Richard Cebra and George Hogan about the federal stimulus, a possible federal jobs bill, paving cuts and Maine’s transportation challenges.
Do you think Maine saw real benefits from the federal stimulus package? Why?
Representative Cebra: No, temporary funding mechanisms are why we have the problems with our infrastructure in Maine. We need to find steady, long-term solutions to funding our infrastructure needs.
Representative Hogan: Obviously, yes there was a limited but favorable impact on Maine of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds. I believe Maine received less than New Hampshire in terms of infrastructure, and it upset a lot of people that we didn’t get more. So I guess the answer is yes and no. It was a gift we are thankful for, but we should have had a higher amount based on the number of roads we have to take care of.
What about Maine’s transportation infrastructure has hurt the state’s economy? What has helped the economy?
Rep. Cebra: Being in a tourism based business people tell me all the time that Maine’s roads are in rough shape. We have several campgrounds in my district and Sebago State Park in Naples; RVers especially mention it – some won’t be back. So it affects campgrounds and all the tourism-based businesses the campers would go to.
Rep. Hogan: The fact that we are unable to afford a strong maintenance program has definitely hurt the state’s economy. We were only able to do 250 miles of maintenance surface treatment (MST), and that is irresponsible. That is a far cry from what we actually should be doing.
What is the most critical transportation need facing the state? What about facing the people in your district?
Rep. Cebra: Long-term steady dependable funding for our transportation infrastructure. All else rests on solving this problem. As far as my district, getting the Naples Causeway bridge project completed as soon as possible is the biggest concern in our area, and it affects the entire Route 302 corridor from Windham to Fryeburg. That’s why I have worked so hard on that project; it’s bigger than just Naples.
Rep. Hogan: It bears repeating – our inability to take care of maintenance is a huge problem. The stimulus money was deeply appreciated, but it is just a Band-Aid when you think about how much we really should be doing. Our needs are huge, and we have so little money to pay for it. In my district, our inability to get more of our projects into the annual two-year work plan is problematic. We usually don’t fare too well in that process; there just isn’t enough money to go around.
The CanAm Connections study discusses transportation infrastructure in the Northeast border corridor and its effects on economic development opportunities. What steps do you think Maine should take to remove the barriers to global trade opportunities?
Rep. Cebra: Two words: SEARS ISLAND. Let’s get a facility built on Sears Island as quickly as possible and stop any catering to the environmental extremists who may hold up the project any longer.
Rep. Hogan: What comes to mind initially is our ports. Searsport, Eastport and Portland are critical to global trade, and they deserve more of an emphasis. Shipping over the ocean is a big opportunity in years to come. We also need to develop a port on Sears Island. If there isn’t any interest in the RFPs for Sears Island, then we need to re-work it and find some interest. Rail also needs to have improvements.
Based on what happened during this past session, the MaineDOT can only fund 250 miles of maintenance surface treatment (MST), when it should be funding 1,200 to 1,400 miles. Your thoughts?
Rep. Cebra: We should change our priorities to fund MST first. Don’t leave it hoping that there will be a gas tax increase. Long-term solutions to our funding problems will also fix this. Raising the fuel taxes is a short-term solution. We need to find better, more dependable long-term funding solutions to better guarantee our revenue stream’s stability.
Rep. Hogan: I was obviously tremendously disappointed. This comes back to educating legislators on the necessity for maintenance – even in their own community! Some of these folks voted against projects that would have taken place in their districts. This is just maintenance. This isn’t tearing up roads and rebuilding roads. If we can’t even do maintenance, we are up for much bigger problems. Legislators should be very worried about what the consequences should be.
What was the most significant transportation success this past session? What was your biggest disappointment?
Rep. Cebra: I don’t feel there were any really notable successes in the last session. The Transportation Committee did not work as well as a unit as it did in the 123rd Legislature. We lost some real transportation champions between the 123rd and 124th: Representatives Dusty Fisher and Chairman Boyd Marley, as well as Senator Christine Savage. All of them had a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge that the committee has sorely missed.
Rep. Hogan: Success: There was no significant success this past session. Again, my biggest disappointment was that we voted for a budget that only had 250 miles of maintenance paving in it.
What are your hopes for the upcoming session?
Rep. Cebra: I have few hopes for this coming session. There will be a revenue shortfall, and my hope is that the committee can find a solution that does not have an effect on the work plan. I am also hoping that we can find some money to do more MST. I was disappointed at the bills that were let through for the second session and several that were not let through. Four “emergency” bridge or highway memorial naming bills got through for this session, but three bills that would have opened the discussion on funding were not let through the Legislative Council process because they were proposed by Republicans. Partisanship in transportation policy serves no one in Maine – except the politicians.
Rep. Hogan: We need to have more discussions centered around sustainable revenues. We do need to think outside of the box and get out of this mindset that the major source of revenue has to be the gas tax. There has to be something added to it that is better and more sustainable. People think the bonds we pass are a lot of money – and they are – but the fact remains that money is just a drop in the bucket in terms of our needs. In any casino or gambling issue, the transportation system should be part of that revenue line. We have increased fees and done peripheral stuff, but we need some real money.
Congress is talking about a jobs program, and the president suggested that he may consider $50 billion for infrastructure. Is this a way to avoid the tough decisions around reauthorizing the federal transportation program?
Rep. Cebra: Maine is already way too addicted to federal money. Hanging our hopes on some new one-time federal stimulus or euphemistically named “jobs” bill solves none of our real problems. It’s welfare for state government, and it’s another case of the administration avoiding another tough decision.
Rep. Hogan: I don’t know if it is a deliberate effort to do that, but if it is going to go the same route as the stimulus bill, where we got the short end of the stick, then yes. It is a tough question. We need to get something, but if it is going to delay further action [on reauthorization], I am not sure it is worth it.
What is the most common constituent complaint you hear about transportation?
Rep. Cebra: The biggest complaint is the mistaken notion that gas taxes go into the General Fund and are not used for our roads. This then prompts a five-minute discussion on my part setting the record straight.
Rep. Hogan: It is usually the roads. Once you explain to them what funds the roads, they better understand the problem. But it still comes back to them complaining about the roads.
Have your transportation habits / commuting habits changed in the last year?
Rep. Cebra: Yes, I bought a full-sized Dodge pickup to increase my carbon footprint.
Rep. Hogan: Yes, to a small degree. Deliberately, because of the price of gas, I am taking fewer trips, and I am traveling less.
What is the worst and best road you frequently travel on?
Rep. Cebra: The best road I travel on is the Maine Turnpike. It ought to be for the size of the Turnpike Authority budget. The worst is Route 114 in Sebago coming into Naples. It’s a dangerous piece of road that needs more than a skinny mix coating.
Rep. Hogan: The best road is the Maine Turnpike and, again, the worst road I travel on is part of the Maine Turnpike. I noticed it just the other day. There are some sections that are great, and others that need some work.