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

Monday, May 5, 2008

How to pay for efficient transportation infrastructure in Maine

After the final passage and signing of a railroad investment funding bill in Augusta, the Downeaster will in all likelihood be running north from Portland to Freeport and Brunswick by July 2010.

Unfortunately, LD 2019 will only cover the cost of the train's capital expansion northward. Before the rails are ready, the highly successful Downeaster train service (which just experienced a 25% jump in ridership compared to last March) will run out of a key source of federal funding, and face an $8 million shortfall in 2009.

How to pay that $8 million in order to keep the trains running will be a critical task of the next legislature. But how is Augusta going to find that money in the midst of a recession, with shortfalls in nearly every area of government?

Naturally, lawmakers are looking to one quasi-governmental agency that's almost as bloated with excess cash as it is with outmoded bureaucrats who can't wrap their minds around the new realities and opportunities of 21st century transportation.

The TurnporkTurnpike Authority has been discussing plans to spend $150 million on just 9 miles of freeway west of Portland. With that kind of money, the Downeaster could keep on running, with expanded service, for decades - and it would probably be enough to let the train become financially self-sufficient, to boot.

Thanks to recent public outrage over expensive gas and the MDOT's plans to expand I-295 and increasing gas prices, lawmakers have a keen sense of what Maine's real transportation priorities are - and an expanded freeway isn't among them. Although there is a constitutional restriction on using gas taxes and tolls only on highways (and not on railroads), some lawmakers have been discussing using toll revenues on increased bus transit (a highway use) in and between communities along the Turnpike. That would free up millions in unrestricted state and local funds to pay for rail service along the Turnpike corridor, and potentially throughout the rest of Maine as well.

The Turnpike's right-wing highway partisans have long dismissed the Downeaster as an insignificant drop in the bucket compared to the volume of traffic that their pavement moves. But when's the last time the Turnpike experienced 25% annual growth in patronage? Is the train insignificant for the thousands of Mainers saving cumulative millions of dollars in transportation costs? Have they noticed how lousy, low-wage big box farms (Augusta Market-"Place", above left) sprout up like weeds around Turnpike interchanges, while quality, mixed-use, downtown infill projects (Brunswick Maine Street Station, below right) get built around train stations?

Most importantly, is anyone really so foolish to think that a six-lane freeway is more important, in an age of $4/gallon gasoline, than investing in transit alternatives? Well yes, a few people are - and your toll revenues are paying their salaries.

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