June 1, 2010

Plan would fund transportation projects

Question 3

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The cruise ship season has begun in Portland, the start of what's expected to be a record year, with 70 vessels carrying a total of 75,000 passengers. But the harbor could handle more cruise ships, city officials say, if a 1,000-foot, deepwater berth is constructed at the new Ocean Gateway terminal.

"We just can't accommodate the demand," said Nicole Clegg, a spokeswoman for the city.

Portland would get $6.5 million to build the new pier if voters approve Question 3 on the June 8 ballot. The money is part of a $47.8 million transportation bond that would pave and rebuild highways, purchase and improve rail lines and make harbor improvements. Supporters estimate these projects would create and support 750 jobs.

Transportation bonds tend to win support among Maine voters, especially packages that promise to fix worn-out roads and bring on a wave of construction employment. This year's offering designates roughly half the money for 10 highway projects.

But the package also includes $16 million for railroads, $7 million of which would be used to buy a freight system that's set to be abandoned in Aroostook County. The wisdom of that investment is being questioned by some politicians and candidates for governor. In addition, the total bond package is under fire from fiscal conservatives who are opposed to the state taking on any new debt.

The largest chunk of the bond would go for highways -- 10 miles of reconstruction and 31 miles of repaving. The projects are considered part of the highway capital improvement program carried out by the Maine Department of Transportation.

A total of 12.3 miles of roadway would be rebuilt, including stretches of Route 201 in Farmingdale, Route 1 in Pembroke and Whiting, and Route 156 in Chesterville, Farmington, Wilton and Jay. Repaving would take place in six locations, including an 11-mile length of Route 27 in Boothbay Harbor and a section of Interstate 95 in Kittery.

"Anyone who spends time in their cars knows there are a lot of roads that need improvement," said Maria Fuentes, executive director of the Maine Better Transportation Association, a trade group.

Three railroad projects are included in the package. They reflect state goals of preserving and expanding rail service, and providing transportation alternatives.

The state would use $4 million to fix the publicly-owned portion of the Mountain Division in western Maine, in the hope of eventually restoring freight service. Passengers could some day again travel to Lewiston-Auburn by rail, if the state spends $5 million to buy the St. Lawrence & Atlantic line between Yarmouth and Auburn, as well as realign the Twin Cities rail system.

The state also would have the option to purchase 233 miles of track in Aroostook County now owned by Maine, Montreal and Atlantic Railway. The company has announced plans to abandon the line, saying it's unprofitable. But 22 businesses that ship on the line, generally forest products firms, say losing the train would increase their operating costs and threaten 1,000 or so jobs.

The prospect of lost jobs has put the state in a difficult position. Some critics in the Legislature, as well as some Republican candidates for governor, say the state will be throwing good money after bad to try to save a money-losing rail line in northern Maine. One of the candidates, Matt Jacobson, knows something about running a freight railroad -- he's a former president of the St. Lawrence and Atlantic.

The proposed railroad purchase, as well as other bond spending for transportation, also is being criticized by the Maine Heritage Policy Center. The group says Maine already has too much unfunded debt and shouldn't borrow more money.

(Continued on page 2)

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