10 for ’10
In 2010, the transportation scene in Maine was marked
by innovation and uncertainty
by Rick Ackermann
No. 1: The 233-mile question
After a lengthy negotiation, Maine bought 233 miles of rail line belonging to Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA) in Northern Maine for $20.1 million. The plan is to keep the troubled line running freight trains in Aroostook County, and the state is now looking for a rail company to operate the line. In 2009, MMA announced plans to abandon the line, telling the federal Surface Transportation Board it had been losing $5 million a year on the lines from Millinocket to Madawaska and a branch off to Caribou, Presque Isle, Houlton and Limestone. The state, noting more than 25 businesses and an estimated 1,000 jobs rely on the lines, stepped in.
The agreement lifted a “cloud of uncertainty” that had been hanging over the rail line, according to MaineDOT Commissioner David Cole. MMA has carried mostly lumber, paper products, logs and wood chips out of the region, while bringing in products such as fertilizer, propane, chemicals, heating oil and cooking oil for a French fry plant.
Denis Berube of the Northern Maine Development Commission told the Associated Press the region’s employers are pleased with the state’s action, but will be keeping a close watch on whichever rail company is chosen to operate the line. “The bottom line for the shippers and businesses is they need competitive rates. At the end of the day, the shippers have to have something that is workable.”
No. 2: Sandy gets to work
This spring, Sandford ‘Sandy’ Blitz of Hudson was named as federal co-chair of the newly formed Northern Border Regional Commission, a federal economic development task force with $30 million in annual funding authority.
The commission is charged with bringing jobs and economic opportunity to the rural regions of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York. When the MBTA’s Maria Fuentes interviewed Blitz for Maine Trails, the new co-chair said that the commission would be spending the bulk of its funding in three areas: transportation infrastructure; energy projects to lower costs; and broadband / telecommunications. The commission has been mandated by Congress to expend at least 40 percent of its funding on infrastructure. That can mean investments in transportation, general infrastructure such as water and wastewater, telecommunications or any combination of those three. As to whether transportation can bolster a rural economy, Blitz said that, without strong intermodal transportation connections, we cannot have a viable economy. Transportation is absolutely critical to the well being of the economy of any region, he noted.
No. 3: Worsening roads ahead
In 2010, the Maine Better Transportation focused public attention on the deteriorating condition of Maine’s roads and bridges by asking Mainers to nominate what they thought was the worst road in the state. Entries came pouring in.
Martha Jordan nominated Route 219 from Turner to Leeds, one of several dozen entries. Her story of a bent rim, busted tire, lost wheel bearings and $1,000 repair bill won the contest and a $250 certificate for car repair, but the truth is anyone of the three top prize winners and five runners-up could have won the contest, according to MBTA Executive Maria Fuentes. “There are a lot of roads in Maine that are badly in need of reconstruction or repair, but Martha’s story really speaks to the frustration and financial hardship that bad roads cause Mainers every day on the way to work or taking the kids to school,” said Fuentes.
Maine has some of the worst roads in New England. Currently, 26 percent of Maine’s federal-aid highways have poor pavement, according to a recent analysis from the Federal Highway Administration, and the condition of Maine’s roads and bridges has been declining for more than a decade. For a full list of “Worst Road in Maine” winners and runners-up, visit mbtaonline.org.
No. 4: Mind the gap
This fall, the Maine Legislature’s Transportation Committee received the alarming news that the state’s Highway Fund was facing a structural shortfall of $720 million over the next two years. Suzanne Roy of the Office of Fiscal and Program Review (OFPR) delivered the bad news to the Maine Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Transportation during fall 2010. According to Roy, expenditures are expected to outpace revenues for the 2012-13 budget by $350 million in the first year and $370 million in the second. Even if the state made no capital investments in the next budget, the budget would still be $3 million short in 2012 and $2.6 million in 2013, based on baseline spending.
What to do about the shortfall? While some have said that the state can close the gap by trimming budgets and seeking efficiencies, that solution did not hold water with Transportation Committee Chairman Senator Dennis Damon (D-Hancock County). He warned that “efficiency finding alone is not going to get us out of this predicament.”
No. 5: Raising expectations
For a short time last year, there seemed to be gathering momentum for an increase in the federal gas tax. Once the mid-term elections were over in November, there was a flurry of lawmakers – both parting and newly elected – calling for fiscal responsibility in the form of a 15-to-25-cent hike in the federal gas tax. The biggest barrier to a gas tax increase is a stubborn sense of denial of the magnitude of the problem – and Representative John nMica (R-Florida), the newly appointed chair of the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure. Mica has said he won’t entertain the idea of a tax increase as a means of paying for infrastructure upgrades. Instead he plans to raise the billions needed to improve the highway system by streamlining transportation spending and leveraging public-private partnerships. The transportation news web site Streetsblog reports that Mica wants spending cuts to stabilize the Highway Trust Fund.
The last time Congress increased the gas tax was in 1993 when legislators voted to raise it by 4.3 cents under former President Clinton. This year, the post-election call for an increase was led by Senators Tom Carper (D-Delaware) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio) who proposed a 25-cent-per-gallon fuel tax on gas and diesel. They proposed rolling the tax out gradually over three years with 15 cents of the new revenue going to the Highway Trust Fund for infrastructure and the remaining 10 cents to pay down federal deficits.
That proposal was followed close on the heels by President Obama’s bipartisan National Commission of Fiscal Responsibility and Reform’s call for a more modest increase of just 15 cents. Their draft recommendations also called for an end to any more bailout highway funding from the treasury’s General Fund. Still, not even the 18-member commission could agree on a final set of recommendations that included a raft of budget cuts and new revenue sources. Whether the new Congress will act on either proposal in 2011 is still unknown. Or is all that talk of fiscal responsibility water under a badly corroded bridge?
No. 6: The year of the TIGER (and making tracks)
Maine’s first Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant showed up in February: $14 million to help Maine’s three deepwater ports – Portland, Eastport and Searsport – diversify their customer base and improve their ability to handle green technology, such as wind turbines components. In October, Maine took home more TIGER grants worth $31.3 million: a $20 million grant (shared with New Hampshire) to help repair or replace Memorial Bridge over the Piscataqua River in Kittery; $10.5 million for upgrades and repair of track for the state’s recently purchased rail line in Aroostook County; and $900,000 for a two-year transportation feasibility study in the greater Bangor region. Maine’s congressional delegation had lobbied intensely for the funding, according to U.S. Representative Mike Michaud.
Maine’s TIGER grants weren’t the only stimulus measures that made big news – and a big difference – in Maine. Amtrak’s Downeaster service also received $35 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation to expand the service from Portland to Freeport and Brunswick – part of a high speed rail initiative in the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. Pan Am Railways construction crews, working with the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA), began construction on the project in August 2010. Work is expected to be complete in fall 2012. The news got even better in December, when NNEPRA learned it would receive $1.2 million in additional U.S. DOT funding for the project. The money was redirected to the project when high-speed rail projects in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida were cancelled.
No. 7: Maine voters still believe in transportation
Question 3, a $47.8 million transportation bond that would support investments in roads, rail and marine transportation, was passed by Maine voters on June 8.
“Getting this bond to the voters and passed was a bittersweet victory in many ways,” MBTA Executive Director Fuentes said after the election. “We really should be funding 10 times as much reconstruction and pavement preservation. We have $3.3 billion in unmet transportation needs over the next 10 years, but short-term concerns about the economy and borrowing levels prevented any substantial effort to address those long-term needs.”
A large amount of the $47.8 million bond will go to fund items in MaineDOT’s two-year highway capital program. The department estimates $24.8 million for highways will fund approximately 10 miles of highway reconstruction and more than 31 miles of paving across the state. Another $16 million is slated for rail, including $7 million for the purchase of the Aroostook rail line and rail projects in Lewiston-Auburn and southern Maine. There was also $7 million for a new deepwater berth in Portland Harbor and the popular Small Harbor Improvement Program (SHIP).
No. 8: You read it here first.
The Maine Better Transportation Association, working with its Senior Policy Advisor John Melrose, the MBTA Policy Committee and Board of Directors released a policy paper during autumn 2010 that looked at the future of transportation in Maine. The report’s release was timed to come just before the newly elected Maine State Legislature and Governor Paul LePage took office. Transportation: The case for investment called for a modern, user-funded transportation system and laid out steps state leaders should take to get there. At the heart of the challenge are the state’s aging transportation system and an obsolete funding approach (state and federal gas tax revenues have not kept pace with the cost of system maintenance). The policy paper offered four principles for a solution:
• Advancing a user-funding model under which transportation services are paid for by the individuals and businesses that use them at a level sufficient to fully fund the service.
• Addressing the capital repair backlog.
• Targeting transportation investments to help Maine grow, specifically its roads, rail, ports, aviation and transit.
• Innovating to maximize the value of our investments in transportation infrastructure and to leverage private investment for the public good.
No. 9: Travel connections
Local and state transportation leaders met in late October to mark the start of construction on the 4.3-mile Caribou Connector project in Aroostook County. The bypass, which will direct commercial and heavy traffic away from the town center, has been on the city’s wish list for 30 years and is part of the long-hoped for north-south highway.
The new highway segment is part of the larger Aroostook County Transportation Study, the primary purpose of which is to identify transportation improvements that would help lead to future economic growth in the area. The two-stage construction project means Caribou can continue to develop the downtown area, making it more pedestrian friendly, while moving large through trucks to the connector.
The connector begins just to the west of Van Buren Road and ends with the interchange at the existing Route 1 bypass.
No. 10: Watching and waiting for truck weights
This was also the year of a pilot project that allowed 100,000-pound, six-axle trucks to operate throughout Maine and Vermont’s interstate systems. The one-year trial expired in December unless Congress renewed it (Congress failed to renew it despite multiple attempts supported by Maine’s Congressional delegation). At the end of November Senator Susan Collins, who initiated the original appropriations amendment for the pilot, noted that the study had produced data in support of a permanent exemption allowing heavier trucks on Maine and Vermont’s interstates.
Brian Bouchard, an MBTA board member and a past president of the Maine Motor Transport Association was not surprised. The president and CEO of H.O. Bouchard had done his own test during the pilot, running trucks along I-95 and parallel two-lane roads from Hampden to Houlton. The data he gathered for the 120-mile trip was striking. The truck using local roads and state highways passed through 86 pedestrian crosswalks, nine school crossings, four railroad crossings and four hospitals. For the truck on the interstate it was a straight shot. The interstate trip, clocked at two hours and five minutes, was also 50 minutes shortand required 10 gallons less of diesel fuel.
All hope is not lost. This January, Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) announced they will introduce legislation to make the exemption permanent.