Taking it to the streets
By Douglas R. Hermann, MBTA President
I hope our members and other Maine Trails readers will take an extra moment to read the story in the Association News section about the MBTA Funding Task Force. The task force is a group of industry leaders that has been working in recent months on a strategy to raise grassroots-level support for investment in Maine’s transportation infrastructure.
The task force grew out of a discussion at an MBTA board meeting last spring. The central question, as MBTA Vice President Tom Gorrill put it, was this: Have we just been “preaching to the choir” while not effectively reaching our leaders in Augusta?
The upshot of that discussion? Something had to be done to spark action in Maine (and eventually in Washington). The board decided the time had come to get back to grassroots and build support for long-term, sustainable transportation investment. Maine voters overwhelmingly support transportation investments – just look back to the November 2012 election and the 72 percent “yes” vote for the transportation bond. Still, too often, our leaders don’t make transportation a higher priority.
At the heart of this effort is what MBTA members know very, very well. That transportation investment makes a positive difference on so many levels. On the street, potholes get fixed and bridges are rebuilt or rehabilitated. Kids get to school more safely, energy is saved and commerce moves more efficiently.
Take a broader view and we know that transportation investment creates jobs, both immediately and in the long-term. I know from talking to many of you that your businesses have found the past few years very challenging. The economic recovery at the state and regional level has literally crept along at a snail’s pace. Meanwhile, our infrastructure continues to crumble; 33 percent of the state’s local and state maintained roads are in poor or mediocre condition; 61 percent of major urban roads in Portland are ranked poor or mediocre; 40 percent of Bangor’s major roads are poor or mediocre. Putting Mainers to work fixing these roads and bridges would create jobs and improve daily life in our town and cities.
If we pull back even further to look at the issue, we can see that well planned and thoughtful transportation investments have the power to connect us to the world. Do you need proof? Look no further than to recent investments in Maine’s port and rail infrastructure that are forming new connections with Europe and beyond (you can read about some of these developments in our cover story on Maine ports).
We are not alone here. All across the country, states are facing similar problems and have been looking for new ways to fund infrastructure. Virginia recently abandoned their fuel tax in favor of a broad-based sales tax. The reasoning was that whether you drive or not, you benefit from roads and bridges. Other states are considering charging users based on the number of miles they drive, a flat-fee option, or tying the gas tax to inflation.
What can we do here, in Maine, to get our leaders to take the steps needed for change? Unfortunately, our gas taxes no longer are able to get the job done. The fuel tax provides some 40 percent of state highway revenues and 92 percent of the federal Highway Trust Fund revenues, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And those funds are not keeping up with what’s required for decent infrastructure. Worse, gas tax revenues will continue to decline as cars become more fuel-efficient and fewer people drive.
Currently in Maine we’re living with a $150 million per year funding gap. But what does $150 million mean? Most people find such a large amount abstract and hard to grasp. So MBTA legislative consultant John Melrose of the Eaton Peabody Consulting Group will be trying to translate that $150 million funding gap into meaningful information for the average Mainer – in effect, taking our message to the streets by developing maps and lists of projects that impact people and businesses in their own communities.
Meanwhile, I look forward to seeing and working with you in the weeks and months to come. Please watch for updates on MBTA’s work in Augusta and Washington and pitch in wherever and however you can. We certainly will need your help this spring – e-mailing and calling legislators, sponsoring meetings, supporting MBTA’s outreach efforts, spreading the word at work and staying informed and involved in the issues. Thanks!