Cumberland County Meeting
Back in business?
The mood at the MBTA’s Cumberland County Meeting March 20 in Portland was decidedly lighter than it has been in recent years. That is saying a lot, when you consider that the state’s economy was once again the centerpiece, with University of Southern Maine economist Dr. Charles Colgan as the featured speaker.
MBTA President Tom Gorrill gave welcoming remarks and recognized several state and local officials and legislative leaders in the audience: Maine Turnpike Executive Director Peter Mills and Representative Ben Chipman (I-Portland). He brought the group up to speed on recent work by the MBTA board of directors to raise support for the MBTA’s Fix It Now! campaign, a statewide grassroots initiative that, Gorrill said, “aims to get the public mobilized to invest in our transportation infrastructure.” Gorrill talked about the board’s upcoming one-day retreat (held on March 25) where the board worked on reaffirming its mission and updating the MBTA’s strategic plan.
News, good and not so good
The focus of the meeting was on the economy and Maine’s prospects for the coming months and years. The event was a return engagement for Colgan, who for the past several years, has offered an economist’s candid view of prospects for the state and for the region’s transportation industry. First, he offered the encouraging news.
“We’ve finally broken what has been a very uneven pattern,” Colgan told 100 MBTA members, family members, friends and community leaders. “We’ve had five consecutive quarters of employment growth for the first time since 2006.”
The good news, albeit with caveats, continued. Employment, he predicted, will continue to grow. Signs this is happening, said Colgan, are that median home prices on existing homes are on track to rebound to pre-recession levels next year, and the construction industry is beginning to recover, though that rebound is better in some sub-sectors than in others. The non-residential market is “pretty flat,” with the highway and non-building only “a little better.”
Colgan was frank in his assessment of the impact of federal and state leaders’ reluctance to increase funding for public infrastructure, including roads and bridges.
“The decisions about public infrastructure – how do I say this? – at both the state and federal levels are being put off at a considerable cost to our future.”
For anyone in the room who was worried about inflation, he quickly put those concerns to rest: “Inflation is not going to happen. . . we have a ways to go before we have to worry about inflation cutting off the recovery.”
The bad news in Maine, according to Colgan, has been bad, but not as bad as it could have been and that will impact Maine as it continues its recovery.
“In Maine, [the recession] has been horrible, but it hasn’t been as bad as the rest of the country,” said Colgan. But then, the recovery isn’t expected to be as robust as it will be elsewhere. “”In each of the last four recessions, Maine has significantly lagged in the recovery.”
Case in point is Maine’s unemployment rate, which for much of the recession was significantly lower than the rest of the region and country. Colgan pointed out, as the recovery has begun to gather steam, job numbers have begun to even out. “We’re at a situation where you now can’t tell the difference between Maine and the U.S. unemployment rate.”
Employment will continue to be a challenge as the state’s population continues to age. Mobility will be an issue, as aging Mainers will need access to friendlier transportation modes, including transit, pedestrian and bicycle options. Having the labor force to keep our economy going will also be an issue.
“Our labor force has started shrinking, and it’s going to get very low,” said Colgan. “That’s not going to be good news. We’re going to have a shortage of workers, and we’re going to pay a price for that down the road.” The only net labor force gains, according to Colgan, will be from the immigrant community, which is expected to grow over the coming decade.
Colgan did say that Maine was not alone. New Hampshire and Vermont also face many of the same issues. He also said there were remedies: increased wages to attract more workers to the state and investment in a “robust transportation network” to move goods and people efficiently throughout the state.
“We have a lot of work to do on our infrastructure for a whole lot of reasons,” said Colgan. “But I don’t have to preach to you about that.”
FMI: The MBTA holds regional issue meetings in Portland, Augusta, Presque Isle and Eastport. For a schedule and more information, visit www.MBTAonline.org.