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

Monday, April 21, 2008

MDOT wastes $16 million a year on do-nothing engineers

Op-ed: Get Priorities for Roads in Order. Streamlining the state's transportation agency would save money that could fix infrastructure.

Maine lawmakers just approved fee increases on Maine motorists amounting to $160 million to patch up Maine's crumbling bridges. This might be an important expenditure, but with Mainers struggling to pay their bills, the State House should have looked at another way to pay, by trimming the fat at MDOT headquarters in Augusta.

This state document indicates that MDOT spends about $16 million a year on "administration and planning" - those salaried pavement cheerleaders who are hard at work dreaming up fantasy highways that Mainers won't ever be able to pay for in the foreseeable future. Sending pink slips to our fuddy-duddy traffic engineers won't only liberate our state of some of the most radically right-wing partisans in Maine government, it could also save taxpayers millions every year.

Simply cutting the planning and administration budget in half would free up enough money to fund all of the bus services in Portland, Lewiston/Auburn, and Bangor. Here are some specific suggestions about how we can start:

  • Eliminate the position of Deputy Commissioner for Policy, Planning, and Communications
    Writing policies and impractical plans are detrimental to MDOT's task of maintaining Maine's roads and highways. Necessary communications tasks can be reallocated to the Commissioner and other staff.

  • Outsource Turnpike management
    Lease the Maine Turnpike on favorable terms to a long-term lessee to manage and maintain the tollway with restrictions on toll increases; use the lump-sum proceeds to pay off the turnpike's obligation bonds, fix the rest of the state's maintenance backlog, and initiate new transit services (see the Chicago Skyway for a successful example of this style of infrastructure maintenance).

  • Eliminate the MDOT's Environmental Office
    The Environmental Office studies cultural issues, wastewater management, landscape architecture, DEP permits, and the like. These are undoubtedly important considerations, but again, since these studies are only necessary for new, large capital projects, this office is superfluous and should be eliminated. In cases where such studies are required for renovation or repair projects, they can be obtained more efficiently and with better analysis from third-party private contractors.

  • Restructure the Bureau of Maintenance and Operations to redirect resources away from the Traffic Engineering Division and towards the Divisions of Bridge and Highway Maintenance.

  • Eliminate the Office of Passenger Transportation
    Relocate staff and management for existing passenger transportation services (such as the Maine State Ferry) to the Bureau of Maintenance and Operations. Eliminate planning staff and reallocate passenger transport planning authority to regional councils of governments and metropolitan planning organizations. [As you ought to be well aware, I am a strong advocate for passenger transportation. However, the state's office is frequently an obstruction to good ideas - in a state as large and geographically diverse as Maine, planning passenger transportation is more appropriately done on a regional scale]

  • Streamline the Bureau of Planning and charge the office strictly with the task of assisting municipalities in maintenance and securing federal funds for maintenance projects. Within the Bureau of Planning, eliminate the Policy Development and Statewide Planning Division.

  • Eliminate the Bureau of Project Development and relocate a reduced staff dedicated to maintenance projects to the Bureau of Planning and to the Bureau of Maintenance and Operations.

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