Business Unusual

How the Maine transportation system is navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond

By Bruce Van Note

Social distancing was practiced in many parts of Maine long before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Our beautiful and beloved state is one of the most rural in the country. Maine’s population is similar to New Hampshire, yet we have nearly four times the geographic area of our neighbor to the west. Combined with science-based safety protocols, our rural nature has helped us in our fight against the coronavirus. We continue to face many tough decisions that involve balancing the health of our people with the health of our economy. While there have been some dark economic days as we navigate this crisis, the work of our Department of Transportation has been a rare bright spot.

Early in the pandemic, my administration determined that construction work was essential. While a few states shut down job sites and road projects, Maine continued with what we call “business unusual.” Teleworking, face coverings and one-person-per-vehicle policies allowed us to safely keep road construction going. When it comes to putting work out to bid, the Maine Department of Transportation continues to deliver at an exceptionally high rate of 97%. From January to June, the department advertised 150 projects with a total construction value of $250 million. In April, MaineDOT opened 58 contracts—more than it has in any one month in the last three years. At a time of extreme economic uncertainly, continued production at MaineDOT is supporting thousands of good-paying private sector jobs.

While there have been some dark economic days as we navigate this crisis, the work of our Department of Transportation has been a rare bright spot.

To keep our foot on the gas pedal of Maine’s economy, our transportation leaders took a calculated risk this spring by adding ten capital projects worth an estimated $33 million. We believed this was the right thing to do for Maine travelers, workers and taxpayers. We were banking on the fact that Maine voters would again approve a transportation bond, and they did. Voters validated our work in July by approving the $105-million bond by a margin of 78%—the highest approval rate of a transportation bond since 1965.

Decreased traffic volumes have also allowed us to work safer and get more bang for our buck. In mid-March, statewide vehicle counts plummeted by about 50%. Volume has increased in recent months but remained down by double digits during the peak summer tourist season. The silver lining on that cloud is this: having fewer vehicles on Maine roads has allowed us to do more construction activities during the day, when operations are safer and costs are lower. In one instance of this, MaineDOT and its contracting partners worked together to accelerate bridge safety work on a stretch of the interstate that passes through Portland—Maine’s largest city. This work would have been significantly more expensive, more disruptive and more time-consuming during normal times.

Of course, the dramatic drop in traffic volume is having a direct impact on Maine’s Highway Fund. MaineDOT gets most of its funding from the Highway Fund, which is primarily funded by our state’s gas tax. Fewer people driving translates to less money coming into transportation coffers. Preliminary forecasts show the Highway Fund down $30.8 million (8.9%) for the current fiscal year followed by another $30.5 million for the next biennium.

Unfortunately, funding challenges are nothing new at MaineDOT. In early March, just days before the pandemic drastically changed life in America, a nonpartisan group of lawmakers and industry experts put a dollar amount on Maine’s annual unmet transportation funding need: $232 million. That unmet need estimate also assumes $100 million of annual bonding. The revenue reduction resulting from the pandemic makes the climb ahead even steeper. Our state has been stretching taxpayer dollars as far as they will go and relying on bonding while interest rates are historically low, but the infrastructure funding situation in Maine, like most states, is unsustainable.

The landscape is similar at the federal level. Our nation’s gas tax has neither changed nor been adjusted for inflation since 1993. Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act reauthorization is necessary to provide long-term funding stability for capital funding needs. In Maine, we have asked for funding formula increases in the range of 30 to 50 percent.
Chronic unmet funding needs and the uncertainty surrounding gas tax revenues make the need for long-term transportation funding solutions more urgent than ever. People all across the political spectrum agree that investments in infrastructure pay off and that a safe and reliable transportation system is fundamental to a vibrant economy. In Maine, our Department of Transportation has proven to be an efficient and reliable engine that supports safety, the economy, and quality of life; it’s just running out of gas.

Bruce Van Note is the commissioner of the Department of Transportation for the state of Maine.

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