Published in today's Press Herald by yours truly: "MDOT should not be (mis)managed by gasoline salesmen". A lengthy excerpt:
During the summer of 2008, when gas prices surpassed $4 a gallon, Mainers clamored for better alternatives: better bus and train services, streets with sidewalks -- anything to help unchain our maxed-out credit cards from the gas pumps.As I go on to note in the column, the Maine DOT's financial incentives affect their support of bus services in our state (bus riders don't pay gas taxes, after all) and their neglect of potholed rural roads (which generate fewer taxes per-mile than urban and suburban roads).
A year later, we have the benefit of hindsight to see how officials at the Maine Department of Transportation responded to that crisis.
They didn't do anything.
After a year of record-breaking gas prices, Maine doesn't have a single new bus route, and Augusta's highway engineers still refuse to include basic sidewalks in road projects.
Even the long-awaited expansion of the Downeaster to Brunswick and Lewiston is still languishing for lack of funds.
MDOT bureaucrats like to blame budget problems for their failure. But if money is really so tight, why are they moving forward with a $4 million widening of Exit 7 at Franklin Arterial, a location where traffic levels have been in decline over the past 20 years?
Why did they recently spend $1 million just to study a short bypass around Skowhegan, when we'll never have the tens of millions of dollars necessary to actually build it?
The problem isn't a lack of funding. The problem is MDOT's self-interested mismanagement.
Augusta's highway engineers know better than anyone that their salaries are paid for from gas tax revenues. They are gasoline salesmen, earning a commission on every gallon sold in this state. They have a direct financial incentive to make us drive more -- no matter what the costs are for us, our economy, or our environment.
Highway lobbyists and MDOT's own employees are now lobbying for an increased gas tax. Others are talking about adding GPS units to cars and taxing vehicle miles travelled - but this change wouldn't affect the underlying incentive towards making people drive more. Instead, lawmakers need to draw the line and hold these guys accountable.
Nor is this problem by any means unique to Maine. State transportation agencies need to be an ally in our fight for energy independence, instead of being an ally of the oil companies and overseas petro-states.