10 for 2011
A look back at the year’s top stories in transportation
By Rick Ackermann
No. 1: Kicking the can down the road to Maine’s future?
The first session of the 125th Maine Legislature closed with a hard-won two-thirds majority on the General Fund and Highway Fund budgets. In the process, the Highway Fund budget took a significant hit in long-term capital investments over the next two years.
Senator Ronald F. Collins (R-York County), co-chair of the legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Transportation, voiced his disappointment that several measures to boost transportation funding did not come to pass, including a $20 million infusion from the General Fund slated in Governor Paul LePage’s original budget and a measure to reduce Highway Fund payments for Maine State Police operations to a constitutionally appropriate level.
“Quite honestly, it comes down to priorities,” Senator Collins told Maine Trails. “We tried to stress the importance of maintaining our roads and bridge infrastructure, but creating that sense of urgency was difficult.”
Some legislators, including President of the Senate Kevin Raye (R-Perry), Senate Minority Leader Barry Hobbins (D-York County) and House Minority Leader Emily Cain (D-Orono), said they planned to push for an infrastructure bond in the coming session. MaineDOT Commissioner David Bernhardt acknowledged a significant drop in biennial funding, and said that it was important to focus on the number of miles being improved.
The budget stretching strategy has required a shift from longer-term capital investments to shorter-term expenditures including light capital paving, known to many as “skinny mix” paving. This year, MaineDOT completed more than 600 miles of light capital paving. The department has, however, benefitted from the recession, which has hit contractors hard, and many bids coming in below budget.
While he credited MaineDOT for adeptly managing the resources it has within its tightly constrained budget, MBTA President Randy Mace said he was worried Maine was “just kicking the can down the road. We have dire transportation needs and every year we delay, those problems are growing.”
No. 2: Augusta retools
Last January, newly elected Governor Paul LePage announced his nomination for Maine Department of Transportation commissioner: David Bernhardt, P.E., a 27-year MaineDOT veteran who most recently had served as director of engineering and operations. In that role, LePage said, Bernhardt had been able to bring about major cost cutting changes within the department, including the consolidation of maintenance facilities and collaboration with New Hampshire to save on road paint, culverts and more. All told, those efforts brought about an annual savings estimated at $10 million.
To be sure, cost cutting has been a central theme in Bernhardt’s first year as commissioner. Said Bernhardt earlier this year: “We’ve looked at certain parts of the department, but I think if we look at everything in the administration, look at planning, design and construction and maintenance and, even, the operations of our systems, I think there are a lot of opportunities there.”
In other news, the 13-member Joint Standing Committee on Transportation took on two new Republican co-chairs: Senator Ronald F. Collins (R-York County) and Representative Richard M. Cebra (R-Naples). With little to no legislative interest in raising revenues (in fact, legislators suspended fuel tax indexing, resulting in a drop in revenues) and a general uneasiness over bonding, the Transportation Committee really had its hands tied during the first session of the 125th Maine Legislature. The MBTA was particularly interested in the progress of two bills: one addressed cost sharing between the General Fund and Highway Fund on the Maine State Ferry Service and the Maine State Police; the other sought to allocate 20 percent of transportation-related sales tax revenues to the transportation-related expenses of the state. While the first bill failed, the second one, L.D. 52, was carried over to this year’s legislative session. There was disappointment, too. Despite promises of General Fund support for roads from the new governor, funding failed to materialize.
In the plus column, legislators voted to allocate the remaining 50 percent of sales tax collected on rental car fees to the STAR Account for aviation, rail, transit, and other non-highway modes. Beginning in FY 12-13, this will bring an additional $3.1 million per year. About $1 million will go to the Small Harbor Improvement Program (SHIP); another $1 million will go to the Industrial Rail Access Program (IRAP); $930,000 will be used for transit investments; and $930,000 will go to Maine’s regional airports. And the Appropriations Committee agreed to allocate 20 percent of proceeds from the future sales of the state liquor contract to the Highway Fund. Some estimates suggest that slice could be up to $7 million per year, to be targeted for pavement preservation and rehabilitation. The funding will not be available until 2014.
No. 3: The Maine Turnpike retools
A comprehensive review of Maine Turnpike Authority spending and operations by the Maine Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Accountability brought about major changes at that agency. Former state senator Peter Mills was called in to be acting executive director and help turn around the agency that had been roundly criticized for questionable expenditures and the need for greater transparency.
As part of the change, the turnpike’s board of directors also gained two new members: former Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Daniel E. Wathen of Augusta took the reins as the board’s new chair; Robert D. Stone, a banker from Auburn, also was appointed to the board by Governor LePage.
Last May, Mills offered a look at what was ahead for the 109-mile toll highway. He jokingly suggested the turnpike in recent months had faced “nine times as much controversy as MaineDOT with just one-ninth the highway.” Mills also spoke about L.D. 1538, legislation that creates greater transparency in how the agency operates. That bill passed in the legislature in early June and Governor LePage signed it into law shortly after.
Mills has also addressed concerns about proposed legislation supported by Maine Treasurer Bruce Poliquin that would require agencies including the MTA, Maine State Housing Authority and the Finance Authority of Maine to send bonds out to public vote. “This is not a bill that should see the light of day,” said Mills.
Mills has talked about the future of tolling in Maine at a time when a few legislators and organizations have been pushing to divert toll revenues for other projects, from buses to bridges.
Mills has urged caution in protecting the funding sources for the highway that carries 85 percent of all commercial traffic in the state and said we should not divert tolls to other projects just because “we don’t have the courage to raise the gas tax.”
No 4: Two [years] is such an easy number
The U.S. Congress inched toward a meaningful debate on a transportation funding reauthorization, making some progress during the final months of 2011. In November, the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee approved a two-year transportation reauthorization that aims to keep funding at current levels with allowances for inflation.
The bill, titled “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century,” was a major effort to address the long-term transportation funding impasse that has existed since the previous authorization, SAFETEA-LU, expired more than two years ago. In the meantime, Congress has funded highways and transit through a series of short-term extensions. The stop-gap approach to funding has made states wary about taking on long-term maintenance and planning – particularly as Highway Trust Fund revenues have fallen short.
Congress may opt for a two-year reauthorization – versus the typical six-year funding cycle – because it would enable members to put off the really difficult decisions about cutting programs or identifying new funding for the financially strapped Highway Trust Fund.
The “Moving Ahead” legislation includes a $12 billion infusion to the federal Highway Trust Fund to help cover that gap short-term, but had not yet identified where that funding would come from. Finding the offsets to cover that $12 million may be difficult, as the so-called “Super Committee” a few days later failed to come to consensus on trimming $1.2 trillion from the federal budget over the next decade.
Stay tuned. As of press time, there appeared to be a debate brewing between the two-year Senate version of the re-authorization and a five-year bill with sweeping reforms put forward by the House.
MBTA will be following developments in Washington over the next months as the authorization moves through Congress.
No. 5: Tales from two ports
Big projects were underway in two of Maine’s deepwater ports this years. In Eastport, construction began on an $8.5 million bulk handling facility that was partially funded by a TIGER (Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery) grant. When the facility is complete early this winter, the port will have a substantial new bulk storage facility (40,000 tons) and is expected to ship up to 150,000 tons of wood chips this year.
In Portland, after years of planning, Portland’s new $6 million Ocean Gateway Pier opened in September, doubling the city’s cruise ship berthing capacity. The 65-foot-deep megaberth was designed to accommodate, and hopefully attract, the largest cruise ships in the world. The floating Ocean Gateway Pier II extends 1,100 feet into the harbor and provides electricity and water for the ships that use it. Because cruise lines book their berths two years ahead, Portland officials expect to start seeing the real economic benefits after 2012. Portland hosted 65 cruise ships in 2011, collectively carrying 92,447 passengers.
No. 6: We have an operator
In April, MaineDOT announced Eastern Maine Railway (owned by Irving Transportation Services) had beat out five potential operators with its proposal to operate the newly dubbed Maine Northern Railway.
The state has estimated that the 233-mile line, purchased from Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway for $20.1 million earlier in the year, serves an estimated 25 businesses and supports approximately 1,000 jobs in the region.
Eastern Maine’s winning proposal to MaineDOT stressed what Irving general manager Ian Simpson believes are the operator’s chief strengths. “We have a strong presence in the region and good geographic connections. Winters are tough in the region, and we are experienced moving freight through winter conditions,” Simpson told Maine Trails. He added that Irving’s interest in the fiber and wood industry, as well as the transportation division’s working relationships with other rail carriers in the region –Canadian National, Montreal Maine & Atlantic (MMA), Pan Am Railways and, of course, New Brunswick Southern and Eastern Maine Railway– were also strong selling points.
Simpson said his initial goal was to get freight moving on the line again. The region has been hit hard by the recession that has seen demand for its primary products – lumber, fiber and other wood products – decrease significantly. That decline and a subsequent decrease in freight moving on the line was a deciding factor in MMA’s 2009 announcement that it wanted to abandon the line.
Another important element in Maine Northern’s strategy was to improve track speeds on the line. To achieve that goal, the new company would rely on track upgrades funded by a $10.5 million federal TIGER grant (Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery). The funding is being used to upgrade the line that had fallen into disrepair during recent years.
No. 7: What is the Worst Road in Maine?
Bad roads represent a major cost for Mainers. First there is the added cost in car repair – nearly $250 in added vehicle maintenance every year. But this year’s “Worst Road in Maine” contest showed how much greater the toll rough roads take on Maine citizens.
This year, Carol Kelley of Waldo County won, competing against 120 entries – twice as many contestants as the year before. Her entry demonstrated that bad roads are not only inconvenient, but can be painful.
“My disabled son is my gauge,” Kelley wrote. “He has a spinal rod and these rough roads make it impossible for us to go anywhere without him screeching ‘Holy - - - -, Mom!’” Kelley said the roads have been so bad for so long, the family invested an extra $1,100 in special springs to help ease the ride. First prize of $250 for car maintenance went to offset the expense.
About the same time MBTA announced Kelley as the contest winner, the Road Information Program (TRIP) issued a report on the condition of rural roads in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Not surprisingly, Maine and its New England neighbors fared badly in TRIP’s assessment. Maine’s rural roads were ranked as the 14th worst in the nation.
“We definitely have fallen behind in our efforts to maintain our rural roads,” said MBTA President Randy Mace, noting that more than 50 percent of the contest entries were rural roads. “It’s a matter of priorities and having to make difficult decisions about where to spend the limited transportation dollars we have. All too often, this perennial shortage of funding comes at a cost to our rural roads.”
No. 8: Big news for big trucks
Thanks to years of hard work by Maine’s congressional delegation and aggressive brokering in the appropriations and subsequent conference process by Maine Senator Susan Collins, Congress passed a transportation bill in November that allows six-axle trucks weighing up to 100,000 pounds on all interstate highways in Maine and Vermont for the next 20 years. That gives Maine truckers the same advantage as truckers in at least 22 states and Canada. The deal passed in late November and comes on the heels of a one-year pilot allowance in Maine and Vermont that expired in December 2010. Senator Collins had included language in the Senate appropriations bills, but similar language was not included in the House’s legislation. The provision ultimately was included in the final version of the budget bill developed by both chambers. During those final negotiations, language was added to put a 20-year cap on the exemption.
“This is a major accomplishment . . . [it] will help shippers, truckers, and Maine’s job creators. More important, it will improve safety for Mainers who live, work, and go to school along the secondary roads, and busy downtowns where these trucks had been forced to travel,” said Senator Collins in a statement. There is an effort afoot to make the exemption permanent. Representative Mike Michaud (D-Maine), who sits on the House Infrastructure & Transportation Committee, has been working with his House colleagues to forge legislation that would allow the exemption to become permanent by allowing states to make the final determination on the issue.
No. 9: Good night, Irene
In late summer, Tropical Storm Irene dropped 8.5 inches of rain on western Maine as it passed through the region. In Carrabassett Valley, mountain run-off from the storm filled surging streams and rivers.
Two bridges on Route 27 – the Brackett Brook Bridge, a 24-foot precast arch structure built in 1999, and the North Branch Bridge, a 39-foot scour-critical bridge built in 1958 –collapsed within minutes of each other when water overflowed the roadway.
Route 27 is a vital economic corridor for the region, and it also links the communities of Stratton, Carrabassett Valley and Kingfield. The double collapse not only stranded visitors at a nearby ski resort, it cut off a critical link to Canada and affected regional businesses.
Crews worked around the clock with an aggressive schedule to move temporary bridges into place and to begin work on permanent structures. On Tuesday at 8 p.m., just six days after construction started, traffic again flowed along Route 27 over the two temporary bridges.
The storm brought havoc throughout western New England. To help out neighbor state Vermont, 149 MaineDOT workers spent nearly two weeks working 15 hour days to help inspect and repair roads and bridges in that state.
No. 10: Simple is not so simple
The Highway Simplification Study, begun last year at the behest of the 124th Maine Legislature, brought together municipal officials from across the state and MaineDOT personnel to examine how the state and municipalities should share responsibility for nearly 23,000 miles of public roads. The core issue: how to care for a 4,100-mile network of “state aid” highways in an era of decreasing state and municipal funding.
“The whole reason for this study was to look at the problem of minor collectors, because there hasn’t been any capital improvements on those roads for decades,” said Skowhegan Road Commissioner Greg Dore, an MBTA board member. Dore was a member of the study’s Policy Working Group and served on the Standards and Costs Subcommittee.
The problem, as the final study report detailed, has roots reaching back nearly 100 years, when the Maine Highway Commission (forerunner of MaineDOT) tried to help municipalities modernize local roads made impassable by mud tracks from the growing popularity of automobiles.
The result of that early effort to develop the state economy through investments in transportation infrastructure led to Maine’s idiosyncratic “state-aid highway” classification, currently in conflict with the federal system of highway classification used by almost every other state in the country.
In Maine, to make the matter of jurisdiction even muddier, the state and towns frequently share responsibility for maintaining these minor collectors or state-aid highways. Towns provide the majority of the winter maintenance. The state maintains the roads in the summer. Subject to funding, they share capital responsibility (one-third paid through local funding/two-thirds from state funding).
The study found that this unique system of shared responsibilities has led to unclear roles, finger pointing, operational inefficiency – ultimately resulting in “orphaned roads” and inadequate customer service.
While no final action was agreed on, here’s what the study concluded: change is difficult; trust is critical; it’s good to aim high; and we need to focus on the positive.