Why we need a ‘war chest’
The MBTA is all about fighting for better transportation infrastructure. Over the years, that battle for public awareness and support has required considerable discipline and, of course, dollars. That’s where MBTA’s ‘war chest’ – the Infrastructure Development Fund – comes in.
By Kathryn Buxton
Since the very earliest days, Maine Better Transportation Association (MBTA) has gone to battle for transportation – at the state legislature and in Washington. The first battle, over the diversion of public money intended for highways and bridges, was waged for several years after the organization was founded as the Maine Good Roads Association (MGRA) in 1939. Maine had enacted a 1¢ state gas tax in 1923, and by the late 1930s, as the country was struggling to recover from the Great Depression, there were great pressures put on lawmakers to siphon off monies from the state’s fledgling Highway Fund. The founders of MGRA fought for a state constitutional amendment to protect the Highway Fund.
Today that battle – and others related to the adequate funding of a safe and efficient transportation system – continue to claim the organization’s energies.
“In many ways, we are still fighting the same fight the founders of Maine Good Roads faced in 1939,” said MBTA Executive Director Maria Fuentes. “We know that we are not spending nearly enough on our transportation system, that we are falling behind, and that there could be significant economic fallout if we don’t act soon to fix our roads and bridges.”
What has changed since 1939, said former MBTA president Earle Cianchette, is the scope of the fight. “MBTA’s original mission as a watchdog of the Highway Fund has changed. It’s grown beyond that,” said Cianchette, senior vice president for operations at Cianbro. Cianchette cites the organization’s decision in 1983 to expand its membership and mission to include not just support for highways and bridges, but also rail, ports, aviation, bicycle, pedestrian and transit.
‘The short end’
The need to support that expanded mission has been a constant battle, and by the 1990s, the fiscal demands of the battle were beginning to weigh on MBTA members.
Notably, the fight to widen the southern end of the Maine Turnpike, while ultimately successful, proved a turning point for the organization. That battle heated up in 1991 when Maine voters halted the widening project and approved the passage of the Sensible Transportation Policy Act (STPA). The campaign led by environmental interests in opposition to the widening was a wake-up call for the transportation leaders. It was a tough lesson, but one that MBTA board members took to heart.
“We found ourselves on the short end of the stick in getting our side of the story out there,” recalled former MBTA President Frank Healy, who was at the time district manager for the Lane Construction Corporation.
So when six years later, the MBTA led a coalition of Maine interests in support of the widening, the 1991 defeat had crystallized the MBTA’s support and resolve. As Fuentes told a reporter from Toll Road News, “We actually spent less money this time but we spent it better. We started earlier and we pitched a positive message. Jobs and safety were our two themes.”
Still, the two very expensive campaigns – the transportation and business community spent $1.2 million to fight the 1991 referendum and another $850,000 on the 1997 campaign – gave the MBTA board pause.
Building a ‘war chest’
The 1991 and 1997 campaigns required an enormous amount of time and focus from the MBTA’s board of directors, and even with the overwhelming public support of the widening – the 1997 vote was nearly 60 to 40 percent in favor – the board recognized the war was far from over.
“We realized there were groups out there that were anti everything,” said Healy. “We felt we needed a good pool of money to fight for issues we felt were important and that members felt strongly about.”
That was about the time Healy urged his fellow board members to think longer term and establish an Infrastructure Development Fund. The intent was to provide a reliable source of funding for the organization’s outreach and public awareness efforts and to relieve some of the heavy burden of constant fundraising for MBTA causes.
“We were continually trying to raise money – for scholarships, for this campaign, for that campaign, all for issues pertinent to transportation – and we were always going to the same members to ask,” said Cianchette. With the Infrastructure Development Fund, the board hoped to broaden financial support for MBTA’s advocacy work and to build what Cianchette called a “war chest.”
Much like today, Cianchette said the MBTA was fighting several battles: about widening the turnpike; about Highway Fund money being used to pay for Maine State Police operations; and of course the daily battles about bonding and state transportation budgets that then, as now, fell short of meeting maintenance needs. And many of those skirmishes required resources for studies, media time and outside consultants.
“We set our sights pretty high and everyone eventually supported it,” he said, noting the original goal was to raise $500,000 for the fund within 15 years. Since that time, the board has raised that goal, setting it at $1.1 million by 2015. It is expected the fund will reach $700,000 by the end of 2012.
Healy added: “We knew that if we had a substantial amount of money and if it was invested well, we would have a significant amount – maybe five to eight percent a year – to put to issues we felt strongly about,” said Healy.
Fuentes recalled the concept of committing to that kind of long-term fundraising effort was a big step for the organization, and that it was Healy who led the debate, urging his fellow board members to think long-term and think big. “Frank had an enormous role and, as it turned out, incredible foresight. I’m not sure that anyone at the time realized just how much of a need we would have,” said Fuentes. She said Healy felt so strongly about it, he and his employer, The Lane Construction Corporation, made the very first $1,500 donation to help establish the fund.
Cianchette said credit also is due to many other MBTA board members at that time, including Mike White, Millard Pray and Herb Sargent. He said they saw the need and set a clear path to addressing it when they encouraged the board to establish the fund.
Sweetening the pot
The next obvious question for the board was how to raise the money. The idea of an annual golf tournament came into play.
“We knew we had to be very disciplined about it and to reach that goal we needed to raise about $30,000 to $40,000 every year,” said Cianchette.
“Our first thought was golf. We had been to enough golf tournament fundraisers, and so we thought, ‘Why not? It works for those groups, and this is a cause near and dear to our hearts. Why wouldn’t it work for the transportation industry?’”
Cianchette chaired the very first Golf Committee in 1997. The August tournament, held at the Falmouth Country Club, was a success with more than 100 golfers particpating. It raised $7,000.
“If you think about it, the idea of a golf tournament was the perfect tool for building the fund,” said Fuentes. She said that it comes at the height of the construction season in Maine, so it’s a good opportunity to take a break and network with friends and colleagues. It also is fun, so it is easy to build support and enthusiasm for the event.
“Rather than just sending a check for $500, you get to have a good time. For a lot of us, it’s about team building and a chance to find common bonds with your industry peers,” said Cianchette.
In the early years, the Golf Committee added other fundraisers to the event, including selling mulligans and sponsorships. To reach the goal, the board decided in 1998 to assign the proceeds from the annual fall auction to the Infrastructure Development Fund. The tournament has continued to be a successful fundraising tool. This year’s event at the Augusta Country Club in Manchester – the 16th annual – was sold out with 144 golfers taking part. By early estimates, the event raised $23,000, more than three times that raised during the first year.
Where the money goes
As disciplined as the board has been about raising money for the fund, the group has beenequally rigorous in how it disburses funds. ypically Infrastructure Development Fund money is given in support of important transportation initiatives. The first donation was $15,000 to the 1997 widening referendum campaign. The board also has voted to provide underwriting support for Leaders Encouraging Aroostook Development (a group that consistently has worked to advance a north-south highway) and the effort to establish an east-west highway route, to support transportation bond voter initiatives, as well as donations opposing efforts that would undermine state investments in Maine’s transportation system.
“It was Earle who really led the board to place spending limits on the fund to make sure that it would have the chance to grow,” said Fuentes.
She added that those limits have forced great discipline, and during some years, like recent ones when the stock market underperformed, the board has not been allowed to dip into the fund.
Rarely in its 16-year history has the board strayed from that mission and made a donation to a non-transportation cause. In 2001, the board voted to make a $5,000 contribution to help families of victims from the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York.
No rest for weary
By early 2012, the fund balance had reached approximately $650,000, and the board remains intent on growing it to its $1.1 million goal.
“If anything, there is a need for an even bigger war chest these days,” said Fuentes. She cited increasing competition for public dollars at a time of decreasing government revenues, as well as the competition for the public support that can help steer more public dollars to the maintenance of Maine’s transportation infrastructure.
Coalescing broad-based support for transportation issues is also becoming increasingly costly as the political and social landscape – and the range of media for reaching out to the public – has changed in recent years.
“It used to be you could produce a radio or a TV spot and reach everyone who you needed to reach,” said Fuentes.
“Now, you have traditional media and social media,” said Fuentes. “The public’s attention is increasingly fragmented, and you have to be a lot more sophisticated in how you shape and broadcast your message. It is important the coalition-building work the fund supports helps carry the MBTA’s message about transportation safety and economic development to key audiences on a daily basis.”
Healy said he doubts the need for the Infrastructure Development Fund will ever go away, because the public and legislature will always need to be reminded of the role transportation plays in a healthy state economy.
“We’ve done a good job in getting our message heard,” said Healy who believes that MBTA and its mission have made inroads among state leaders, thanks to strong leadership from the board, continued efforts from its staff and financial support from the Infrastructure Development Fund.
Ever the visionary, Healy warns against resting on MBTA’s laurels.
“Transportation is going to change and look different in 20 years . . . in 50 years. . . and we need to be forward thinking,” said Healy. “Maine is a rural state, and we don’t have any choice. We need roads and bridges and ports and rail. We need to protect the infrastructure we have.”