Monday, February 25, 2008

Several projects competing for limited dollars

Portland Press Herald

February 24, 2008

Some big decisions are going to be made this year that will shape transportation options in Greater Portland for decades to come.

State and regional planners want to ease congestion on the I-295 corridor between Portland and Brunswick, possibly by upgrading several interchanges and widening the highway in Portland. Also, state officials must decide how to pay for the operating costs of Amtrak's Downeaster passenger train service and whether it should be extended to Brunswick.

Also in the mix are plans to replace Veterans Bridge, which connects Portland and South Portland.

The decisions are hard because there's not much money available for the foreseeable future, and only a few new transportation projects can move forward.

As automobiles become more fuel efficient, drivers are paying less in federal fuel taxes for every mile they travel. That means there's no longer as much federal money coming to Maine. Meanwhile, the rising cost of road construction projects is outpacing inflation.

As a result, the Maine Department of Transportation for the most part is focused on maintaining the state's current infrastructure rather than adding to it, with a particular focus on fixing and replacing bridges.

However, there is one pot of money --roughly $50 million in congressional earmark funds -- that is likely to become available in 2009 for the Portland area.

A planning committee made up of representatives from 15 municipalities between Biddeford and Freeport will decide which two or three projects should get funded. Some people say the decision comes down to expanding highway capacity or increasing public transportation options.

The top projects under consideration include adding a third lane to both north and southbound lanes of I-295 in Portland, between exits 5 and 7.

Further down the list is extending Downeaster service to Brunswick.

One reason the Downeaster is a low priority is the uncertainty of its long-term funding. The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority is looking for a state commitment to pick up the $7 million to $8 million annual subsidy for the service. The federal government has paid for most of the subsidy since the service started in 2001, but the funding is slated to end in 2009.

If the Downeaster is going to continue, state lawmakers will have to decide how to pay for it. If they can't, then all the talk about extending the service to Brunswick is meaningless.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

Copyright © 2008 Blethen Maine Newspapers

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