Wednesday, January 02, 2008

State needs to rebuild transportation bureaucracies

Maine Today

Widening roads is an outdated solution to this century's problems, and doesn't serve Mainers.

Christian McNeil
January 1, 2008

The Maine Department of Transportation is sounding the
alarm about a "funding crisis."

The agency claims that it's no longer receiving enough gas-tax
revenue to pay for scheduled maintenance on Maine's roads and

Mainers might sympathize -- we're in the middle of our own
transportation funding crises, with gas at $3 a gallon, few transit
alternatives available and growing concerns about the
greenhouse gas pollution coming from our motor vehicles.

We're addressing these challenges of our own by tightening our
belts, sharing our rides, and managing as well as we can under
these new constraints.

But MDOT's bureaucrats want nothing to do with frugality. Their
agency is planning miles of gilded pavement, and it's begging
policymakers to raise taxes and fees by hundreds of millions of
dollars to finance this spree.

In an era of rapidly rising gasoline prices, MDOT and its more
solvent cousin, the Maine Turnpike Authority, have no plans to
pay for new transit services. In fact, the state's successful
passenger rail service may soon shut down for lack of funding.

And even though the transportation sector is the state's largest
source of greenhouse gases, these agencies have no plan to
slow down the growth in Mainers' lengthening commutes.

It's as though gas were still $1 a gallon and global warming
doesn't exist inside the headquarters of MDOT and the turnpike

It may be the case that MDOT can't afford to maintain its core
infrastructure. But neither can Mainers afford to pay for
transportation bureaucracies that are obviously stuck in the

Citizens in Portland recently encountered this time warp when
we learned of MDOT's plans to spend $91 million to expand
Interstate 295 through the region.

Yes, I-295 is a problem. Because of the freeway, we can't walk to
our train station and University of Southern Maine students can't
walk downtown.

Most people have to drive and clog local streets in order to make
short trips across the freeway's impassable moat.

But in MDOT's view, the only problem with I-295 is that it needs
more traffic. Their engineers admit that the expensive new lanes
will quickly fill up with more cars and dump out more
congestion, accidents and air pollution onto local streets in
Portland, Falmouth and Freeport -- but they've been widening
roads for 80 years, and are incapable of implementing more
innovative or effective solutions.

The failures of MDOT and the turnpike authority affect all of

Rural areas will always need highways. But if traffic engineers
continue to waste hundreds of millions of dollars on expensive
and ineffective road expansions in places like Greater Portland
when alternatives are both feasible and strongly desired, rural
Maine's roads and bridges will always be strapped for funding.

Whether you're an independent trucker in the north woods or a
Main Street entrepreneur of the new creative class, the status
quo isn't working. Maine's stone-age transportation
bureaucracies are sandbagging our economy.

The Legislature should provide permanent funding for
alternative, more cost-efficient transportation solutions where
they are appropriate, in places such as Portland, Bangor and the
I-295 corridor.

The Legislature should also adopt the governor's initiative to
consolidate the turnpike authority and MDOT.

A dedicated portion of the turnpike's toll revenues should fund
the Downeaster, which relieves congestion in the same corridor,
and also pay for new commuter bus and vanpool services
throughout Maine.

Ultimately, Maine's transportation bureaucracies will need more
than consolidation. They need to be gutted and built anew to
reflect the new constraints and opportunities of the 21st

This "funding crisis" is a good chance for our state's
transportation agencies to shed their sand-and-gravel sacred
cows and come to terms with the future.

-- Special to the Press Herald

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