A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Question 3: "Jobs Bond" or Highway Bailout?

A friend asked me today about my opinion on the state's revised bonding proposal, which proposes to borrow, with voters' approval in the June election, about $48 million for transportation projects.

I wrote about this on this blog a few weeks ago
, when Augusta Democrats had proposed a much larger, and much more highway-focused bond package. They'd euphemistically called it a "jobs bond," even though highway construction jobs are notoriously low-value and short-lived.

The Bangor Daily News has a good rundown of last-minute negotiations that reduced the size of the borrowing package. The new, scaled-back proposal includes:

  • $25 million for highway maintenance and construction statewide.
  • $9 million for rail improvements in Lewiston and to restore the Mountain Division rail line between Portland and Fryeburg.
  • $7 million (to be paired with another $7 million from the state's General Fund) to bail out the Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic railroad in Aroostook County.
  • $6.5 million for Ocean Gateway, a deep-water cruise ship berth in Portland that will require an additional $1.5 million in local funds.
This year's bond package will also include these non-transportation items:
  • $5 million for development of offshore wind power.
  • $5 million for a new dental school and dental care programs in rural Maine.
Here's what I can say about this bond package that's positive: it's smaller than it might have been, and it gives greater weight than usual to non-highway transportation, particularly railroads. The (smaller) investments to the Lewiston and Mountain Division railroads could put those lines in a condition that's one step closer to accommodating commuter trains or Amtrak.

However, most of the rail money will be earmarked for the state to purchase a financially marginal line in far-northern Maine - a railroad that's been put out of business in large part because of the state's long history of subsidizing highways.

The state purchase of the Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic Railroad will also require an additional $7 million from the state's cash-strapped General Fund - the same pot of money that's supposed to finance social services and schools. Even as a rail advocate, I have a hard time swallowing the idea that we should be throwing the mentally ill out on the street in order to bail out a rail line through the North Woods. Even Rep. Josh Tardy, whose district is within striking distance of the line, is questioning the wisdom of this expense.

Unless you count the additional cruise ships that Portland might see, none of these projects will create any new transit services for the people of Maine, even though gas prices are creeping up towards $3/gallon again.

Instead of building the transit infrastructure we actually need, we're only treading water, trying desperately to sustain an obsolete infrastructure that's increasingly unsustainable.

One of the biggest ironies is that state lawmakers are still trying to sell this as a "jobs bond." But if we want to create high-value jobs that last longer than a single construction season, why can't we invest in research and development bonds, or industrial cluster grants, or any of the numerous economic development programs that have been proven to be more effective job-creators?

For the past few years, I've been voting "no" on the transportation bonds - a small protest vote against the Maine Department of Transportation's mismanagement. They haven't registered my protests yet - but maybe if a few thousand of my fellow citizens join me, they'll get the message.

Read more about the bond package:


From BallotPedia

From the Kennebec Journal

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