Need for activism is key message at 61st Maine Transportation Conference
If ever there was a time to speak up for transportation, it is now. That was the overriding theme at the Maine Transportation Conference, a day-long event held December 1 at the Augusta Civic Center. More than 500 transportation enthusiasts – engineers, contractors, planners and municipal and business leaders – attended panel discussions and presentations on everything from innovations on the state level to successes in planning and implementing complex transportation projects on the municipal level.
Still, it was Janet Kavinoky’s call to action – for everyone in the room to become “an evangelist for transportation” – that set the tone for the day. Kavinoky, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s executive director for transportation and infrastructure, offered a dynamic view of the battle underway in the nation’s capital over long-term federal transportation authorization. Legislation has been held up since the SAFETEA-LU (the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act) expired more than two years ago. Since then, funding for highways, bridges and transit has come through a series of short-term extensions, and the gap between available transportation funding and a growing list of backlogged infrastructure projects has grown, not just in Maine, but across the country.
At the same time, Kavinoky spoke about recent gains, as public discontent over continued under funding of highways and bridges has bubbled to the surface and public anger over the two-week aviation shutdown this summer put the need for transportation funding in the national headlines. The aviation shutdown put thousands of federal workers and contractors out of work – which the public found unacceptable at a time of high unemployment and economic uncertainty. Kavinoky also mentioned signals from the Republican leadership that they would be willing to back a two- or three-year funding bill as a positive sign of movement on the issue.
‘Re-evaluate the message’
Kavinoky, who has devoted her career to transportation, serving four years at the U.S. Department of Transportation and working for the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO), said public concern about the nation’s aging and inadequate transportation infrastructure is at its highest levels in decades. Still, that does not mean negotiating a solution will be easy. She spoke about the need to raise the federal fuel tax, an effort the U.S. Chamber has been squarely behind for several years.
“We’re the U.S. Chamber and, normally, we’re known as the tax lowering people. But we’re not afraid to say that raising the tax on gas and diesel is the best way to fund transportation, and we have been saying that for several years,” said Kavinoky. “Still, the public support is just not there.”
Kavinoky conceded that without public support or Congressional willingness to take a leadership role, the outlook is dim. She said we will need to identify other revenue sources – both public and private – to bolster the buying power of the flagging Highway Trust Fund.
Kavinoky said now is the time to “re-evaluate our tactics and message” because the typical ways of talking about transportation needs are not working with the public.
“The ‘sky is falling’ approach isn’t working. While Congress and the media love a scare story, the public trust and confidence in that message isn’t working. The public thinks ‘We’ve given you all that money, what have you done with it?’” said Kavinoky.
She said that going forward, striking a balance will be critical. “The first fight is for the middle. Transportation is about balance of the public and private.”
From Kavinoky’s macro view, presentations throughout the day drilled down to look at what is being done on the state and local level to address the transportation challenge. A morning panel led by Jack Basso, AASHTO director of program finance and management, looked at how states are coping. Basso spoke of several high profile state projects – reconstruction of I-64 in Missouri, the launch of open road tolling in Delaware and the reconfiguration of the Allan Road / U.S. Route 12 intersection in Yakima, Washington – as examples of states taking the initiative to deal with issues including congestion and funding. Basso mentioned inroads some states have made in raising revenues, despite the current anti-tax climate, including Indiana’s sales and use tax and Vermont’s recent addition of a 2 percent state sales tax that will help boost transportation funding there.
Panelist George Campbell, Jr., who recently left his post as commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation and also served as Maine Commissioner of Transportation, said that, in many cases, states are their own worst enemies when it comes to advocating for more funding. He described the typical state DOT mindset as “one of ‘can-do.’ We solve problems no matter how much or how little is thrown at us. We don’t let things fail, and I don’t think we should change that culture,” said Campbell. But he said that states do need to let lawmakers know just how great the “infrastructure deficit” is in their states and how much that neglect is costing society – in increased maintenance costs and lost productivity.
Campbell talked about New Hampshire’s efforts to tackle its own infrastructure deficit, how that effort was helped by the federal stimulus funding and the support of the New Hampshire Legislature. The state has undertaken several major projects, including the Manchester Airport access road, a $175 million project completed in November; reconstruction of the Spaulding Turnpike in Newington-Dover; and reconstruction of the three bridges that connect the state with Maine – on which construction of the first – Memorial Bridge – is just about to begin.
Fellow panelist North Carolina Department of Transportation Secretary Dr. Eugene Conti, Jr., discussed his state’s efforts to fund needed transportation improvements in tight economic times.
Conti said his department’s credibility with both taxpayers and state legislators has been buoyed by efforts to develop data-driven analyses of transportation benefits and cost. Conti spoke of a recent battle at the North Carolina General Assembly to end indexing of the state gas tax. His department provided lawmakers with a clearheaded accounting of precisely how much revenue would be lost – $125 million annually – if a 2.5-cent increase did not go into effect. According to a NCDOT report, that would mean fewer bridges and miles of highway repaired – and fewer jobs.
In the end, the state legislature took what Conti called the “courageous” stand and allowed indexing to stay in place. Conti’s department remains focused on performance measures, using its limited funding resources from the gas tax, GARVEE (Grant Anticipation Revenue) bonds, and tolling to create a transportation system for the 21st century – despite a 60 percent gap between secured funding and anticipated needs.
While much of the conference focused on transportation policy, the funding gap at the state level and local efforts in Maine to find innovative ways to stretch transportation dollars, issues including emerging environmental management trends, new technologies and practical design were also discussed.
The conference also featured the work of UMaine engineering students, and at the luncheon, an award was given for the best student paper presented earlier in the day – “Wildlife Collision,” by Joshua Simpson.
The day concluded with a banquet and presentation by Dave Sotero of Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority who spoke about “Carmageddon,” the weekend this past summer when I-405 in Los Angeles, the most congested freeway in the nation, was shut down to enable crews to demolish and replace the Mulholland Bridge.
According to Sotero, the agency coordinated efforts of several entities for the historic shutdown – demolition contractors, engineers, Caltrans, LADOT, Metro and local law enforcement – to redirect more than 500,000 vehicles that use the freeway on a typical weekend. He said that LADOT committed 380 traffic control officers overall and 37 changeable message signs to the fix. Caltrans provided another 64 freeway message signs, each displaying traffic conditions and detour information.
There were also incentives for drivers to use public and air transportation – free subway and bus rides, discounts on Amtrak and special $4 airfares on JetBlue. And, of course, there was a major public information component that incorporated “Shop Local” and “Countdown to the Closure” campaigns, television, Twitter, Facebook, internet and coordination with GPS services Tom Tom, Garmin and Magellan.
The evening program also included the announcement of the Max L. Wilder Award, given every conference by the MBTA to the speaker who garners the highest number of votes from conference attendees. This year, the award went to Patricia Quinn of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, who spoke about developments on Maine’s passenger rail scene.
61st Maine Transportation Conference
Luncheon Conference Awards
MaineDOT David H. Stevens Award:
FHWA Award for Environmental Stewardship:
Judy Gates, Director, MaineDOT Environmental Office
FHWA Paul L. Lariviere Award:
Student Paper Awards:
First: “Wildlife Collision,”
Joshua Simpson, UMaine
Second: “Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS),” Brian Steele, UMaine
Third Place: “Queuing Theory,” Nick Hartley, UMaine; and “Pavement Preservation,” Shaun Turner, UMaine
MBTA Max L. Wilder Award:
Thank you, conference sponsors!
Louis Berger Group
Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc.
The ATM Coalition
Kleinfelder / SEA Consultants
The Lane Construction Corp.
T.Y. Lin International
GZA GeoEnvironmental, Inc.
Erdman Anthony & Associates, Inc.
GZA GeoEnvironmental, Inc.
VHB/Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc.
Wyman & Simpson, Inc.
CLD Consulting Engineers, Inc.
MRG, Inc. (Maine Rail Group)
Gorrill-Palmer Consulting Engineers, Inc.