Just-in-time may work for business, but not our infrastructure
“Some things we don’t have control over, such as a torrential rainfall or a ship breaking loose from its mooring. But we do have the option to be responsible and make smarter choices. We need to take better care of our infrastructure and find sustainable funding alternatives. Because just-in-time isn’t working very well for our roads and bridges – or for Maine.”
By Douglas R. Hermann, MBTA Outgoing President
We used to have three bridges connecting Maine and New Hampshire. For more than a month, recently, we were down to just one. And while the Maine and New Hampshire Departments of Transportation returned the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge back to service as soon as was possible, the problem is really much greater than one, albeit important, bridge.
The problem is this: we have adopted a just-in-time approach to taking care of our important transportation infrastructure. We wait until the last possible opportunity to fix our roads and bridges, and while that practice has many benefits for business, it puts our essential public resources – and our economy – at risk.
At the heart of the problem is how we fund maintenance and repairs to our highways and bridges. We pay for that primarily from gas tax revenues we pay to the state and federal governments, and that gas tax hasn’t been keeping up with demand. We haven’t raised the federal gas tax since 1992, and in inflation-adjusted dollars, the gas tax today generates roughly only half the revenue it did 20 years ago. We aren’t doing much better with keeping up on the state side, either. The 125th Maine Legislature removed our only hedge against inflation when they revoked indexing of the state gas tax.
Some may argue that we need to do even more with even less, but the reality is we are struggling. While we think we are saving money by not raising the gas tax or finding an alternative to properly fund critical transportation highway and bridge maintenance and repair, we aren’t. When we squeeze yet another year of use out of an aging bridge or a narrow, pothole-riddled road, we are watching future repair and replacement costs rise. When we make the decision to delay, we place an undue burden on our business and personal budgets.
Consider that bad roads currently cost the average Maine resident $300 in added maintenance costs every year. Collectively, that totals $301 million a year in added costs – double the amount MaineDOT estimates it needs in addition to current funding to fix our roads and bridges.
When we wait until the last minute to take care of these important public assets, we put our citizens and our economy at risk. The sad thing is, we’ve been here many times before. Think back to the Waldo-Hancock Bridge. A vital coastal route was closed to commercial truck traffic for months when engineers discovered weaknesses in the steel bridge cables. There was the washout that shut down Route 136 in Durham. Also recent sinkholes in Rockland and Bangor. Or even earlier this year, when the lift span on the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge became stuck for several days. That caused marine traffic to come to a halt.
When part of our aging transportation infrastructure breaks, we break out the Band-Aids – sometimes very expensive ones – patches simply designed to hold critical parts of the system together. We see the businesses that depend on our ports, roads and highways suffer, like those in Portsmouth and Kittery. Then we get back to crossing our fingers.
Some things we don’t have control over, such as a torrential rainfall, a truck hitting the bridge like what happened when the I-5 bridge collapsed in Washington state on May 22 – or a ship breaking loose from its mooring. But we do have the option to be responsible and begin to make smarter choices. We need to take better care of our infrastructure and find sustainable funding alternatives. Because just-in-time isn’t working very well for our roads and bridges – or for Maine.
In other related news, members of the MBTA Board of Directors having been calling members during the past few weeks, asking for your help with our newly launched “Fix It Now!” campaign, the outcome of nearly eight months of planning and discussion by the MBTA Funding Task Force (I wrote about in the last issue of Maine Trails). To date, several members have generously stepped up, and already we have raised nearly $35,000 toward our first-phase fundraising goal of $75,000. I would like to thank the task force members and all of the association members who have made donations to the effort so far.
We’re going to need more than money in the months and years ahead. We’re going to need you to serve as community ambassadors. This is a grassroots effort to get community and business leaders outside of the transportation industry involved in the debate, so we will need you to talk it up in your home towns and among your neighbors and friends – much as you do for voter bond campaigns. We will be developing on-line and/or mobile resources to help those outreach efforts. Keep watching this space for campaign updates. I look forward to working with you on this important grassroots effort!
This is my last column as MBTA president, and I want to thank my family, everyone at work, Maria Fuentes, her staff and, especially, all the MBTA members who have worked with me and the board of directors during this challenging year in transportation. You certainly have made this experience fun and rewarding, and it has been an honor to be your president.