Get moving on improvements to Maine roads and bridges

By Andy Sturgeon and David Cole, Special to the BDN
Posted Oct. 31, 2013, at 11:55 a.m.

On Nov. 5 Mainers will vote on whether to approve a $100 million transportation bond to make critical investments in Maine’s transportation system, including $76 million for road and bridge projects across the state, as well as $24 million for needed port, rail and other multimodal improvements vital to moving people, goods and the Maine economy.

From a public policy standpoint, the case is more than compelling. Transportation is almost omnipresent in our lives, and we tend to take it for granted, until it fails us. Just about every Mainer depends on the state transportation system for many of the basics of life. When it comes to our transportation system, failure is not an option.

In fact, in today’s fast-paced, “just-in-time world,” our economy is highly dependent on a functioning transport system that can cost-effectively move goods and services to market in a reliable and timely way, let tourists move around our state and enable people to work and go about their daily lives. Billions of dollars in state commerce flow across our transportation corridors every year, making the upkeep and modernization of the system “must-do” projects.

For its part, the Maine Department of Transportation’s capital plan relies heavily on the proposed bond, and without its passage a long list of projects across the state cannot go forward over the next two years. In fact, even with this new $100 million bond, the highway and bridge programs at the state still face a shortfall of about $110 million per year.

This is part of an ongoing challenge, as DOT’s long-range plan published in 2010 identified approximately $3 billion in unmet capital need over the next decade.

In addition to more efficient commerce, fewer vehicle repairs and a safer system, transportation bond investments also have other immediate economic effects. The $100 million bond will leverage an estimated $154 million in federal and other funds. This total of $254 million of activity in turn will produce an estimated 2,800 jobs in construction and related industries, sorely needed with unemployment in the construction sector in the double digits.

Beyond the public benefits, however, there are also good business reasons to invest now, as opposed to kicking the can down the road. Deferred maintenance on roads and bridges is rarely a good idea. It’s like putting off a roof repair only to have to deal with much more expensive structural and interior issues later on. The right improvements at the right time save money.

Today, construction prices, while recovering from the depths of the recession, are still attractive compared to the last economic peak in mid-2000s when the cost of steel, asphalt and other construction materials were spiraling upward. Interest rates are still historically low as well, so it is a great time to be investing in infrastructure, particularly the “must-do” projects included in DOT’s work plan. It only makes sense to invest now, while early in the economic recovery, while prices are still good, interest rates are low, and our contractors and their employees need the work.

Finally, the new transportation bond is designed to be flexible, so the DOT can address needs and opportunities that may arise prior to future bond issuances. For example, the people and businesses of eastern and northern Maine are anxiously awaiting the fate of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway bankruptcy proceedings, and the availability of flexible bond funds may prove essential to preserving this vital east-west rail connection, even though a specific need cannot be identified at this time.

For all these reasons the Action Committee of 50 strongly supports passage of the Transportation Bond on Nov. 5. It’s the right time and right investment.

Andy Sturgeon is president of the nonprofit Action Committee of 50. David Cole, former Maine commissioner of transportation, is a consultant and adviser to AC 50.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/10/31/opinion/get-moving-on-improvements-to-maine-roads-and-bridges/ printed on September 21, 2014