State lobs wish list to Obama

Posted Dec. 14, 2008, at 7:28 p.m.

President-elect Barack Obama wants to make the largest investment in the nation’s transportation infrastructure since Eisenhower created the federal highway system in 1956, and state officials want to help.

The Maine Department of Transportation created a $335 million, 87-project wish list of aviation, bridge, highway and rail projects that Gov. John Baldacci delivered to Obama, Vice President-elect Joseph Biden and top transition team officials at a National Governors Association meeting earlier this month.

Maine officials and federal delegates are eagerly anticipating the possibility of a 100 percent federally funded transportation revitalization, which likely will be part of a massive economic stimulus package that Obama’s transition team hopes to have ready when he takes office Jan. 20.

“We want to make sure that Maine gets every penny that we can access,” Maine DOT Commissioner David Cole said Thursday. “We don’t know how much money that stimulus package will have for Maine, but we don’t want to leave a penny on the table.”

The ardor has many sources, said U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Millinocket, who is on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

The first is that while it’s not the sexiest issue in politics, transportation infrastructure is the economy’s circulatory system. About 80 percent of Maine’s commerce travels the state highway system, Cole said.

“And with transportation, there’s a huge return on investment,” Michaud said.

Every dollar spent on it generates $5.70 in economic activity, said U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. As many as 47,000 jobs are created by every $1 billion spent — a great pump primer for the economy and a reeling U.S. construction industry, which has more than 1 million unemployed.

Transportation investments are “a proven job creator,” said U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who also has indicated some support for the initiative.

They are investments that last. Roads often go 30 years without major overhauls. Some projects on Maine’s wish list, such as a 1.8-mile section of Route 15 in Orrington, date to the late 1940s, Cole said.

“It’s an investment in the future,” Michaud said. “If you are looking at the federal level and seeking the most bang for your buck, infrastructure provides it.”

But aside from incidental disasters, such as the 2007 collapse of an eight-lane bridge in Minneapolis, the issue never draws enough political fire to sustain major funding initiatives, only smaller-scale federal reauthorizations spread over several years. Most additional federal bills, such as the $50 billion “Economic Recovery Act” Collins introduced in the ongoing federal legislative session, remain in committee.

“It’s one of those things you don’t notice until it stops working,” Cole said.

Obama’s infrastructure plan might be the largest in history, said Mark Latti, DOT spokesman. Yet no one really knows what the plan will entail, so Maine’s wish list is wide-ranging and flexible. Every project can start “within 90 to 180 days, and they run across the transportation spectrum,” Latti said.

The “rehabilitation” of about 22 miles of Interstate 295 northbound from Brunswick to West Gardiner is the largest job. It entails replacing 8 inches of poured concrete base with 7 to 9 inches of rubblized concrete and asphalt, plus new guardrails and road straightening where needed.

The cost illustrates why such work is attempted so infrequently: $35 million to $40 million. Road reconstruction costs can reach $3 million per mile, Cole said. Repavings cost less.

Most state and interstate projects are mills and fills — the shaving and repaving of a road’s concrete base — or reconstructions that have been delayed for decades. About the most exotic project proposed is construction of a $13 million visitor center and garage on Thompson Island from which visitors can take bus tours.

Otherwise, “this is largely a lot of ‘gotta do’ projects,” Cole said. “It’s a ‘two-fer’ because this is work we need to get done and the construction industry needs the jobs, so it’s a good time to advance this work.”

Michaud’s major concern with the infrastructure bill is its long-term cost. It will be funded with borrowed money. Coming after the Wall Street bailout, which raised the federal debt ceiling to $11.3 trillion, about 47 percent of the federal government’s debt is foreign-owned, he said.

“That’s a huge concern,” Michaud said, “but we have to get people to work.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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