May 25, 2018
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The Road Not Taken

How many new roads will be built in Maine in the next 10 years? How many should be built? Those questions must weigh heavily on long-range budget and economic development deliberations when the Legislature returns to work in January.

One new road that will be built is the $20 million Caribou Connector, a bypass around downtown Caribou. Gov. John Baldacci touted the new road, saying it would “support increased economic growth by reducing travel times and separating local traffic from through-traffic.” Perhaps. But concerns larger than cutting drive time must be confronted statewide. These concerns mean balancing the immediate needs of deteriorating roads and bridges with longer-range matters relating to our goals as a state.

First, the immediate. The gap between the work that is needed on Maine’s roads and bridges and available funding is between $3 billion and $4 billion. The federal stimulus package helped Maine catch up on some road and bridge work, but that money soon will be used up, and the funding gap again will be staring transportation planners in the face. The two parties know current funding sources are not providing enough money to close that gap, yet they refuse to be the first to suggest an increase in the gasoline tax or propose another funding mechanism.

Bad roads and bridges are more than an annoyance. They affect the state’s businesses as they try to receive materials and ship goods. They also hamper the state’s top business sector, tourism. Bouncing over a narrow, bumpy road on the way to Greenville, Machias or Stonington will not inspire tourists to return or to tell their friends to visit.

The longer-range concerns are being ignored. Sen. Dennis Damon, who has co-chaired the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, makes the point that the Department of Transportation has become the “Department of Roads and Bridges.” Rather than focusing on planning for intelligent ways to respond to demographic trends or to encourage economic growth, the DOT has become reactive, struggling to pick which few roads are blessed with new pavement. This is a poor default position, and it results in missed opportunities.

A key wrinkle that gets lost in these discussions is the role land use planning plays. When voters approved the Sensible Transportation Policy Act in 1991, they endorsed the federal push to solve transportation problems on an intermodal basis; that is, to consider ways to move goods and people other than on roads. A renewed emphasis on this sort of thinking is needed in Maine, where it could tie in effectively with a state government reflecting on what it can pay for and what it cannot.

A recent study of traffic problems in the suburbs south and west of Portland, which examined population trends through 2035, suggested land use fixes that encourage people to live closer to their jobs and to public transportation. Not only are such fixes less expensive than building new roads, but they also yield other savings in public services. If the no-new-road approach is appropriate for Greater Portland, where 70 percent of the new homes and jobs in Maine are projected to emerge in the next 25 years, it ought to be appropriate for the rest of the state.

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