Questions of transportation
MBTA’s Maria Fuentes talks with Representatives Kimberley Rosen, Charles “Ken” Theriault and Douglas A. Thomas about the federal stimulus, a possible federal jobs bill, priorities for the next governor and Maine’s transportation challenges.
Do you think Maine saw real benefits from the federal stimulus package? Why or why not?
Representative Rosen: Yes, Maine saw benefits from the stimulus package, as evidenced by the paving and improvements on I-295. What was disappointing was the percentage of the stimulus money going to transportation infrastructure was less than seven percent. We should have received more money for construction, because we have plenty of shovel-ready projects and the state could have used a larger percentage of money that came to Maine for projects that create jobs.
Representative Theriault: Yes. The projects completed with the ARRA funding were “shovel ready” and had already gone through permitting, which meant they did put people to work and helped businesses, while improving sections of our infrastructure that were clearly in need of repair. The only problem was that everyone wanted the funds to be used in their area, since so much help is needed all over the state.
Representative Thomas: Not as much as we should have. The way that bill was structured and rushed through, we ended up putting out too many big projects as opposed to more small projects that would have been scattered throughout the state. If we had done that, it would have benefitted more people and more regions of the state.
What about Maine’s transportation infrastructure has hurt the state’s economy? What has helped the economy?
Rep. Rosen: An exciting recent innovation that came from Maine is the new technology for “bridge in a backpack” developed by Dr. Habib Dagher at the University of Maine. On the negative side, the absence of an east-west highway has hurt our economy.
Rep. Theriault: Our transportation infrastructure has hurt the economy in this way: we are not fixing or upgrading areas that are in dire straits. In terms of help, we are experiencing very little help to the economy at this time. Much more needs to be done. Having a north-south railroad has helped the economy, but it will be devastating if part of the system is abandoned.
Not having a north-south highway has hurt our economy.
Rep. Thomas: It has hurt our economy that we don’t have good freight rail service. If we had a main line rail company that provided reliable service, it would significantly improve our freight opportunities, which would improve our economy.
Increasing the weight for trucks on the interstate to 100,000 pounds is a huge help to our state – bigger than anybody knows yet.
What is the most critical transportation need facing the state and people in your district?
Rep. Rosen: Safety should be the top priority in terms of transportation for the state. We have a lot of two-lane rural roads with no shoulders, and national studies show that there are far more accidents on narrower, rural roads. Another critical need is maintaining and improving our highway system. In my district, there are many issues: the deteriorating condition of major roads such as Route 15 and Route 46 pose a challenge and are a safety issue. Posted roads are a huge economic obstacle every spring, and it is a challenge to get our major roads ready for heavy truck traffic. Other needs include dock capacity for small commercial ships, and we also need more reliable freight rail service.
Rep. Theriault: The most critical need is finding the proper funding mechanism to insure a continuity of service to our infrastructure. Our shippers rely on the rail line that is now at risk. If we lose our rail system, and don’t have a highway up north, where does that leave us? Going to Canada would be the only route.
Citizens in my district are in need of a highway that will get them to their destinations without having to go through areas that limit their speed to 35 miles per hour. This affects people from Houlton on up. We are also in need of a rail network. We need both.
Rep. Thomas: The most critical need in the state and to my constituents is the same: the neglect of our secondary road system. We haven’t done the proper maintenance to those roads and many have gone over their useful life; others are close. Our neglect is costing us and it is going to come back to bite us.
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?
Rep. Rosen: In the short term, we have to ensure that there is rail service up north between Millinocket and Madawaska. We need to promote business in northern Maine and my hope is that a private investor will step up.
Beyond that, we need to have more efficient use of existing funds and revenues and improve highway, rail and port service so that we can be a player in global trade. Sears Island is a critical component of that vision, as well as smaller ports, such as the port of Bucksport.
Rep. Theriault: The major player in the Can Am Connection is possibly a cargo port in Searsport and the development of a north-south highway. The marine ports, along with good roads and rail service to the islands of port would put us strategically where we need to be to maximize on the opportunities of global trade.
Rep. Thomas: The first: we should build an east-west highway – a corridor that allows Canadian trucks to travel through Maine subject to Canadian weight laws – and allow Maine trucks to do the same. Many of our products go to and come from Canada. Why not allow those trucks bringing or delivering products to travel through the corridor and have one set of rules govern them?
What significant transportation initiative or legislation do you hope passes this session?
Rep. Rosen: The Supplemental Highway Budget will be the most important piece of transportation legislation this session.
Rep. Theriault: The legislation that is most important to my area this session is to maintain the rail service from Millinocket to Madawaska. We did not receive the (federal) TIGER grant money we had applied for, so we must therefore find a way to maintain the rails at this time. I have put in a bill for a $20 million bond for the rail, but I am open to other solutions as well.
Rep. Thomas: This session is going to be focused on balancing the budget, and that will take all the air out of the room. I don’t see any significant transportation legislation coming out of this session. There were some good bills proposed, but they were not let in by the Legislative Council. I would like to see more of a focus on looking at the relationship between local communities and the state.
Congress is talking about a jobs program, and the president suggested that he may consider $50 billion for infrastructure. Do you support a jobs bill in Congress?
Rep. Rosen: I do support the jobs bill that Senators Snowe and Collins supported in the U.S. Senate.
Rep. Theriault: I do support a jobs bill with the hopes that the state of Maine could benefit by putting people to work and repairing our infrastructure throughout the state. We also need a “jobs bond” at the state level.
Rep. Thomas: No, I don’t support it, in part because we cannot afford it. We would have to borrow money.
What should the next governor’s highest priority be in terms of transportation policy?
Rep. Rosen: The new governor must bring some fresh thinking to the ongoing funding issue. We have many transportation challenges and we need a new vision for transportation.
Rep. Theriault: The next governor’s highest priority with respect to transportation would be to ensure that a mechanism for funding the transportation budget with new sources gets adopted. This is absolutely critical.
Rep. Thomas: The next governor should focus on addressing our lack of maintenance of secondary roads.
What is the most common constituent complaint you hear about transportation?
Rep. Rosen: I hear a lot about the condition of Route 46 and Route 15. There are potholes, frost heaves, and deteriorating and dangerous conditions. Like I said earlier, the most important priority should be public safety. On some roads, it is as simple as having the yellow center lines, but for other roads, the dilemma is much more challenging.
Rep. Theriault: The most common constituent complaint I hear is that citizens from the north don’t get the attention others get when it comes to our roads.
Rep. Thomas: The most frequent complaint I hear is about MaineDOT crews sitting around too much.
Have your transportation and commuting habits changed in the last year?
Rep. Rosen: Since the gas prices have gone back down, I have been driving more miles.
Rep. Theriault: My transportation habits haven’t changed – they are the same as always. In our area, one must travel longer distances than most other people in the state for services, etc. With gas prices being 20- to 25-cents higher in Aroostook County, it is difficult, but it is the reality we live with.
Rep. Thomas: No, I needed a car to go out and get groceries before the recession, and I still need a car now. My habits haven’t changed at all.
What is the worst and best road you frequently travel on?
Rep. Rosen: The worst roads are the posted roads on our minor collector system. The best road is the interstate.
Rep. Theriault: The best road I travel on is I-95. The worst section of road I travel on is U.S. Route 1 from Madawaska to Van Buren.
Rep. Thomas: The best road is I-95. I can’t pick the worst road because there are just so many of them.