The stimulus bill passed last year included a $1.5 billion line-item for a merit-based grants program known as TIGER (Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery). This money has been held separate from traditional federal spending programs in order to fund projects that would have a particularly strong impact on economic development and community vitality, by criteria to be determined by transportation secretary Ray Lahood. This week, reports Streetsblog, those grants - the last major infrastructure funding announcement from the stimulus bill - will be announced.
First, rein in your expectations. $1.5 billion divided among 50 states evenly would net $30 for Maine. That's not exactly chump change, but there's not much our spendthrift transportation bureaucracy can do with that kind of sum - $30 million wouldn't even pay for the Maine Turnpike Authority's proposed new tollbooth in York. More likely, the $1.5 billion would be divvied up in a way that more closely matches states' populations, which means that Maine will get even less.
It might be different if Maine had proposed a radical, game-changing transportation plan for funding. It didn't. The state's TIGER grant applications read like a series of hail-Mary passes for projects with little to no real economic justification. They include:
- The "Caribou Connector," a 4.3 mile road through potato fields designed to bypass "congestion" in a farming community of 8,000 souls;
- The Eastport Gateway Rail project, a crutch for the moribund Port of Eastport near the Canadian border;
- The Northern Tier Rail Preservation Project, an effort to save an east-to-west rail line through the North Woods that was recently abandoned by its for-profit owners due to lack of traffic;
- The Mountain Division Rail Project, requesting $28.5 million to rebuild a rail line to sleepy foothill towns like Baldwin, Brownfield, and Fryeburg.
There are good reasons why no one wants to pay for these projects: all of them demand tens of millions of dollars for parts of the state where there are very few people and even less economic activity. I grew up in Steep Falls, right next to the Mountain Division line; if there were a train there, I'd ride it on a monthly basis. But I am one of perhaps 30 people in the entire state who would do so. Why is the Maine DOT even talking about building a train line to Steep Falls before we invest in rails to actual cities like Lewiston or Bangor? Why is this a higher priority than improving travel speeds and reliability on the Downeaster line between Portland and Boston?
Rounding out the list of Maine's TIGER applications are two projects that do a slightly better job of passing the sniff-test: a plan to revitalize three of Maine's ports with various capital projects, and a plan to rebuild the bridge between downtown Portsmouth, NH and Kittery, ME. Unfortunately, the former is tainted by its inclusion of a cruise ship "mega-berth" of questionable provenance, and the latter ought to have been paid for under the Maine DOT's regular maintenance schedule - it seems like a long-shot that Secretary Lahood will want to foot the bill for Augusta's negligence.
In total, Lahood has received $57 billion in requests. That means that 93% of funding hopefuls will go home empty-handed this week. To be sure, other states are also proposing potato-field bypasses and backwoods railways.
But other states are also proposing meaningful projects that will serve millions of people - and Maine missed that opportunity.