There are many issues concerning Maine’s substandard transportation system, but it mostly comes down to money. Maine struggles with a large network of state roads, at least a quarter of which have never been brought up to standard.
David Bernhardt, a career engineer at the Maine Department of Transportation, was Gov. Paul LePage’s surprise choice as commissioner. Bernhardt is a straight shooter, and it was he who pulled the plug on the Wiscasset bypass, a rerouting of Route 1 that’s gone through a host of designs and federal permitting over 20 years.
The discovery of a bald eagle’s nest – protected under state and federal law – recently delayed matters, and was the subject of LePage’s silly remark that “Eagles don’t pay taxes, people do.” But Bernhardt said it was the $100 million price tag, not the eagles, that scuttled the project.
The wonder is that the Wiscasset bypass had progressed so far, a very expensive new road whose route would be so circuitous people might not even use it during the off-season — all but eight or nine weeks of summer.
Wiscasset has been relentlessly impractical in managing downtown traffic, rejecting MDOT’s suggestions and coming up with nothing of its own. As an experiment, a traffic light was set up downtown and, according to MDOT, improved traffic flow. But selectmen didn’t like it and it was removed.
A pedestrian overpass or underpass might be a good alternative to the eight-hour shifts of officers directing traffic. Perhaps with the bypass dead, the town will finally get around to some creative thinking.
At the other end of the needs spectrum is the Memorial Bridge between Kittery and Portsmouth, N.H., which was permanently shut down on July 27, three years before a scheduled replacement can open. Even during the biggest crisis caused by Maine’s decaying infrastructure — the Waldo-Hancock bridge’s closing on Route 1, and emergency replacement by the Penobscot Narrows Bridge — some traffic flow was maintained.
The Memorial Bridge shutdown results from inadequate planning, and inadequate funding, by both states. How bad have things gotten? MDOT refused to allow a fundraising jam session on the shuttered bridge for fear pedestrians would overload the structure.
Maine was perhaps more responsible than New Hampshire for Memorial Bridge’s premature end. MDOT was holding out for a possible combined bridge for Memorial and the Sarah Long Bridge, just to the north, that carries the Route 1 bypass and a rail line. An interesting idea, but impractical. And now, the downtowns of Kittery and Portsmouth have been divided, something that will damage Kittery businesses significantly.
Unfortunately, we can expect more bridge closings. Even pruning unnecessary projects like Wiscasset’s bypass won’t solve the huge backlog of unmet needs.
Bernhardt says there has been too much borrowing by MDOT. He has a point. The state did have two big highway bonds, in 2007 and 2009, and also borrowed in anticipation of federal funding. It did so, however, because of a nearly catastrophic projection of how many bridges would fail.
The Republicans who took over last November have been anything but helpful. Not only is there no transportation bond issue, large or small, but they also repealed gas tax indexing — a measure that at least kept inadequate fuel tax levels from eroding further due to inflation.
Transportation advocates regularly trot out dismal numbers. For instance, Maine is spending $230 million less for highway and bridge overhauls than two years ago. Yet advocates don’t seem to mention the obvious solution — raise the tax to a level that will fund improvements.
The situation is even worse in Washington. The federal gas tax has remained flat since 1993, and hasn’t been increased for transportation purposes since 1986. Since then, the value of federal aid to states has plummeted 40 percent. It’s no wonder Congress has been unable to approve a six-year transportation reauthorization. There is no money, and the highway fund “borrows” from the treasury to pay current bills.
The last time the federal tax was raised, over President Reagan’s veto, businesses and road advocates united around a plan to add a nickel in tax. Despite rhetoric about sky-high taxes, combined federal and state taxes are a negligible portion of the $3.80 a gallon pump price — yet still, no one will point out the obvious answer.
We do get what we pay for, and we’re not paying enough to improve, or even maintain, transportation networks we all depend on. Looked at another way, though, we will all be paying the price, perhaps much sooner than expected.
Douglas Rooks is a former daily and weekly newspaper editor who has covered the State House for 25 years. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.