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

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Eliot Cutler on Roads, Transit, and Reducing Maine's Transportation Costs

Over lunch today I participated in the "live chat" on mainetoday.com with independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler. Here's the question I asked him:

Inflation of fuel costs and commute distances means that many Maine households are spending more on their cars than they do on their homes - it's a major threat to our cost of living, not to mention our public finances. Meanwhile, the state Dept. of Transportation seems incapable of building basic sidewalks in our downtown areas, much less improve transit services. How would you hold the DOT accountable to reduce its own costs and Mainers' transportation energy expenditures in general?
His response (you might pardon the typos, since this was a "live" chat, after all):
Boy, is that a good question. It all comes down to strong leadership. Thats how you insure success and change.

First of all, we need to do a good job everywhere in Maine of making sure that the "external" costs of development are borne in some fair measure by those undertaking the development. Sidewalks and other basic improvements need to be incorporated at the outset of projects, not added remedially at a later date, when it is much more expensive to do so.

Second, we need to address some of the hidden taxes that we impose right now on people who depend upon cars to get their kids to school or themselves to their jobs. (Yes, we need to build more compact communities, but we also need to deal with the hand that we've already dealt ourselves.) I already mentioned the vehicle inspection program that costs each of us a bunch of money each year without any measurable impact on safety. The sorry and deteriorating condition of our roads in Maine now imposes a hidden tax of $200-300 a year on every car owner in unnecessary maintenance costs per vehicle. We need to find the money to fix these problems and to remove these burdens on both Maine people and visitors to our state.

Third we need to look at transit solutions that will work in Maine today. My experience tells me that efficient and effective bus service (particularly with electric buses that reduce our use of liquid fossil fuels) will be our best bet.

Would love to explore these issues with you some time at greater length, Christian. Good question!
Overall, a fair response - kudos to Cutler for seemingly acknowledging that the state DOT is imposing big external costs on our communities by failing to plan or build complete projects from the get-go (see Exit 7 in Portland for a classic example) and for talking up buses, the inexpensive workhorses of our transit systems that don't typically get as much political attention as glitzy trains do. And kudos as well for acknowledging that the repair of existing roads and bridges should be a higher priority than planning or building new highways (particularly if we can't afford to maintain the roads we already have).

I'm a bit puzzled at the reference to vehicle inspections (I've heard him mention this before at another event). They might not add appreciably to safety, but they're also only $12.50 a year - pretty small potatoes in the context of the thousands of dollars a typical Maine household spends on cars every year. Getting rid of car inspections is not a sufficient transportation policy, not by a very long shot. But it's probably a populist talking point, so there you have it.

All in all, I'd grade it a solid "B" - he's an intelligent candidate, but he needs to work on bringing that intelligence to bear on this issue where Maine households and governments are bleeding hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

1 comment:

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