New Brunswick capital investment spree inspires awe at Washington County meeting
With just nine days to go before he retired, Doug Johnson showed he knew how to wow a crowd. The assistant deputy minister at the New Brunswick Department of Transportation (NBDOT) talked about a transportation spending spree undertaken by the NBDOT over the past 20 years.
“In the late 1980s, there was very strong support from our government for our highway system. There was the understanding that we needed to upgrade and expand our arterial trade networks,” Johnson told the crowd of more than 60 MBTA members and friends at the June 17 Washington County meeting at the Eastport Chowder House.
And expand they did. Now, more than 20 years later, the province has increased its network of four-lane highway eight-fold from 94.6 kilometers to 798.3 kilometers and hundreds more kilometers are soon to break ground or are in the planning stage. Billions of dollars have been invested by the federal government in partnership with private investors and businesses.
As the evening progressed, Johnson talked about the decade of expansion and reconstruction achieved entirely thanks to a strong national transportation policy and the government’s commitment to public-private partnerships (P3). As examples, he mentioned the completion of 505 kilometers of the Trans Canada Highway from Edmonton to Moncton, the 12 kilometers of four-lane highway connecting with I-95 in Houlton, the major investment in “twinning” Canada’s Route 1 where it crosses the border at St. Stephen-Calais to the Route 1 Atlantic Gateway Project, a P3 project that involves 39 interchanges, 31 road grade separations, seven railway grade separations and 19 bridges.
Johnson spoke of investments not in millions of dollars, but billions. And he praised NBDOT’s private partners – finance companies and construction firms – for their creativity and commitment to financing and building the new highways and bridges in ways that will save New Brunswick taxpayers millions of dollars every year. The P3 contracts all came with 30-year maintenance commitments, as well.
The result has been reduced highway deaths and injuries and significant reductions in operating costs for commercial shippers. “We’ve gone from having the worst highways in Canada to having the best,” said Johnson.
The next challenge for NBDOT has been developing a system for managing this audacious new transportation system and all of the additional miles of modern four-lane highway. For many transportation authorities with limited budgets, the investment approach usually begins with the “worst comes first” strategy, but Johnson described how NBDOT worked with a Fredericton-based software developer to design a transportation asset management system to strategically plan investments that would ensure a sufficient level of service throughout the province.
“We decide where to invest based on the asset life cycle rather than base our decisions on the ‘worst comes first’ business model,” said Johnson. The new approach is called “investment-minded thinking” and is projected to save New Brunswick taxpayers $72 million annually – and $1.4 billion over the 20-year planning cycle.
Johnson’s presentation, one of the last he gave in his role as NBDOT deputy, also gave MBTA members a glimpse of the iconoclastic thinking that has made NBDOT’s massive transportation investment possible. He issued a rallying cry to “Tear down the border” between Canada and the U.S. to open up trade and transportation – a move he said would greatly benefit both country’s economies. Johnson also congratulated Maine on its efforts to preserve operations on the soon-to-be-abandoned 233-mile Montreal Maine & Atlantic rail line in Aroostook County.
“We’re tracking that issue very closely,” Johnson said. “We’re very pleased that Maine is so committed to improving and sustaining that railway. We’re all about trying to sustain what little rail we still have on our side of the border.”
Deborah Dunlap Avasthi, the MBTA’s newly elected president, was the evening’s emcee and introduced several notable guests in the audience, including two state legislators: Senate minority leader Kevin Raye (R-Washington County); Representative Howard McFadden (R-Dennysville)). The crowd also included three Maine Transportation Achievement Award recipients (Dick Martin, Walt Parady and Don Raye); four MBTA past presidents (Martin, Tim Folster, Don Raye and Lauren Corey) and the new manager for the City of Eastport (Jonathan Southern). MBTA board member Skip Rogers, Eastport Port Authority Director Chris Gardner and Maine Port Authority Executive Director John Henshaw addressed the MBTA board at the afternoon meeting.
The gathering in Eastport was the first chance for MBTA members to gather and talk about the outcome of the June 8 election, which included passage of the $47.8 million transportation bond and a slew of other jobs bonds that the MBTA board had supported. “We’re thrilled that the transportation bond passed,” said Avasthi. She added that the board now was focused on the upcoming gubernatorial campaign and influencing the candidates’ positions on transportation.
The evening concluded with the MBTA’s traditional 50-50 Raffle. Carrie Martin won the prize and half of the proceeds went to the MBTA Educational Foundation Scholarship Fund.
The annual Washington County Meeting is one of several regional forums on transportation and related topics sponsored by the MBTA. For more information about upcoming meetings, visit www.mbtaonline.org