A Department of Transportation with a vision that works with the people of Maine

By Ramona du Houx

April 10th, 2009 

David A. Cole has been MaineDOT’s commissioner since 2003, he recently sat down and talked about the changes at MaineDOT, the challenges, and how working with Maine’s communities leads to better transportation solutions.

The new Penobscot Narrows bridge
The new Penobscot Narrows bridge

“We use innovative management techniques and innovative construction techniques — like composites materials. Under Governor Baldacci’s leadership and with his support, we are working with UMaine to develop bridges made from lightweight, durable composite materials. We built one of these bridges in Pittsfield last year, and we’ll be looking for more opportunities in the future. The ‘bridge in the backpack’ helps us mobilize without heavy equipment, causing less disruption to communities. The future in transportation will be about intelligent designs, infrastructure that’s maintenance friendly, and intelligent transportation systems.”

Projects are assigned priority with the help of regional development agencies and communities working with MaineDOT, explaining why their transportation needs will improve an area economically, for safety reasons, and necessity. This marks a significant change under Cole’s leadership at MaineDOT.

“Our goal is to work smart and strategic, and to integrate our planning with land use planning and economic development, because they all go hand in hand.

“We work with regional economic planning people from around the state, listen to their priorities for what they think would be best for their area, and begin the conversation. We look to see what are their top priorities. So, together we create regional comprehensive economic development strategies that integrate transportation needs.”

From that process, MaineDOT has identified major areas which, with infrastructure development, will help the state economically.

“Working with regional planning agencies, we’ve identified several corridors of regional and economic significance for transportation—a concept we call ‘CREST.’ For example, the CREST corridor between Bangor and Bar Harbor, down Route 1A, has become known as the ‘Bar Harbor Express.’ We’re beginning work on another section on of that roadway this spring, so the Route 1-A segment of that corridor will soon be completed.”

Smart transportation planning involves MaineDOT working closely with communities so the end result to a project is something the community and state planners are satisfied with.

“Context-sensitive solutions is a philosophy that we pursue. It recognizes that engineering standards are there for a reason, for safety and the integrity of the project. At the same time there are adjustments that can be made to accommodate a community, like an environmental consideration, which can be balanced off against those standards.
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“For example, in Camden we rebuilt Route 1 going out toward the state park. If we had only used industry standards, we would have built a six-foot shoulder. By thinking out of the box, we were able to do what we needed to do; we cut some trees but left many more untouched. So many, in fact, that a news team thought we hadn’t started cutting, when we had already finished the project.”

Other examples of using context-sensitive solutions occurred when MaineDOT reconstructed the Sheepscot Bridge in Alna and built the Penobscot Narrows Bridge between Prospect and Verona Island.

“Early on in a planning process you roll up your sleeves in a community, sit down with them and figure out how you can accommodate without endangering anyone.

“With the Alna Bridge, citizens were concerned that we would put in something that would destroy the natural beauty of the place. Some were afraid that the 28-foot bridge we proposed was too wide. Our designs allowed them to see how it would fit in nicely with the environment. We even brought in trucks to show them that what they were asking wouldn’t accommodate trucks going both ways. The end result is beautiful.

“The new Penobscot Narrows Bridge is another great example of that. We ended up putting an observatory in the bridge, paid for with federal ’Enhancement’ funds. There were 72,000 visitors last year. We won twenty national and international awards for that project, including process innovation — how we were able to do it fast with the highest quality and safety.

The new Penobscot Narrows bridge
The new Penobscot Narrows bridge

“It’s all about working with the community. People have genuine concerns that need to be heard.”

MaineDOT is building on existing systems, by working with partnerships, to make smart investments in transportation.

“We are looking more at intermodal freight opportunities — which could be a combination of roads, freight rail, and marine shipping. The Auburn Intermodal Center is Maine’s ‘inland port’ which transloads goods. Helping Maine businesses get their goods to market more effectively is a high priority for Governor Baldacci and the department.

“We’re pursing opportunities for businesses to get to their markets more quickly. By working with two railroad companies, Danville Junction is being enhanced. Pan Am Railways, the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad, and MaineDOT all put in some money to get a better junction; this was progressive thinking on the part of both railroads.”

The potential of a cargo port on Sears Island —

Imagine freight cargo moving through Maine’s backwoods, north-south and east-west, all the way to California or up to Montreal. The plan would help free up roads from trucks, improve the railroad system, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The plan will access markets in Europe and Asia as well. It all starts with a cargo port planned at Searsport.

In January, the Legislature’s Transportation Committee approved an executive order from Gov. John Baldacci that divided Sears Island into two parts: 330 acres for a new port facility and 601 acres that will be protected from development using a conservation easement.

“Pursuant to the governor’s executive order, we have put 601 acres on the island into a conservation buffer easement. The remaining acreage will be used as a container cargo port, once we find an investor-operator that wants to do it. We view it as a public-private partnership opportunity.

More cargo trains are needed in Maine
More cargo trains are needed in Maine

“We are going to aggressively market the island and nearby Mack Point to container-port operators. We can build upon investments that have already been made, such as the causeway, and harbor improvements.

“Just as the Interstate was the transportation backbone of the last 50 years, the global interstate is going to be in container shipping. We have an opportunity to get on that interstate.

“Searsport could be shipping goods directly to Europe and Asia. You can bring containers into Searsport where the Montreal and beyond, Maine and Atlantic Railway meets, and double-stack the containers, one on top of the other, and ship them all the way to Montreal. Most ports are located in urban areas where there are a lot of obstructions like bridges. It’s very expensive to raise bridges in urban areas to allow for double stacking. Because the railroad goes through the Maine wilderness, there are fewer obstructions.

“Containers could be shipped directly to Chicago and then on to the West Coast. And in turn it will provide a transportation outlet for Maine paper mills, and other industries. It might attract industries to the state that are looking for an outlet to ship overseas.

“It’s been difficult for our railroads to make the necessary infrastructure investments, due to the lack of freight volume in Maine to warrant putting funds into the tracks. But if we were to put in a container port, the increased volume of cargo being shipped by those railroads would make the investment more reasonable. To reinvigorate rail in the state of Maine, you have to bring the system more volume to ship.

“Marco Polo’s Silk Road opened trade routes in Asia, and communities prospered along it. Likewise, we need to establish trade routes in Maine to compete in today’s world.”

Until the Baldacci administration stepped in, the Sears Island project was condemned by environmental organizations and some local residents.

“Few of us wanted any other developments on the island—like condos, or hotels. The buffer zone for recreation in a preserved natural environment is ideal. Under the consensus agreement, the stakeholders have agreed that both conservation and a potential container/cargo port are appropriate uses for Sears Island subject, of course, to meeting environmental standards and to any necessary permitting.

“We got there because we got to know the people of the community and other stakeholders. We demystified what a cargo port would actually be. At the same time, we learned from an environmental point of view what their vision was. It’s a great example of what can be done. This is a big breakthrough.

“The container port is a great project. If you are serious about reducing Maine’s carbon footprint, you have to look at the transportation sector. The most environmentally friendly, energy-efficient way of moving goods around the world is by sea, followed by rail. Rather than bringing goods in from the west by truck, let’s do it by rail.”

The commissioner would also like to see more public transportation in the state, from buses to commuter rail.
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“Our job is to be thinking long term; we try to preserve critical assets. We bought the St. Laurence and Atlantic rail line between Portland and Yarmouth. We have the option to buy it all the way up into Auburn. Someday there will be demand for commuter trains between Maine’s cities. We want to preserve that option. I can see commuter trains, light rail, going back and forth into downtown Portland and Auburn.

“Where we can use mass transit, we should be using it. Where we can use intermodal connections, we should use them. We are managing and designing systems around people’s needs.”

MaineDOT plans for future growth —

“We’re looking over a 20-year horizon at demographic trends, not just population. With a growing elderly sector of the population, we have to ask what that means in terms of transportation. We’re also looking at how climate change will impact Maine.

“Transportation to us is about solutions. As we look at the needs of transportation, from trains to roads to shipping to air, we look at them as means to find opportunities that will solve problems.”

Prior to his appointment as commissioner, Cole served eight years as president and CEO of Eastern Maine Development Corporation, a nonprofit economic development organization serving a six-county region in eastern Maine. That experience has been invaluable to the state.

“I like being a trouble shooter; that’s what I did when I was in economic development. Communication with the public, to me, is very important. Changing lifestyles will be changing transportation needs. We need open communication to continue, as transportation needs will correspond with how the state develops.

“Companies care about how they get their people to work, how they get raw materials in, and how they transport their goods.

“In tourism — it may be about helping the Island Explorer in Bar Harbor, or helping improve the roads so people can access Bar Harbor and the surrounding region more easily. We’re building an intermodal system in Trenton to get people out of their cars and use buses. We’re also partnering with Sunday River and Sugarloaf.”

In 2006, MaineDOT completely shut down Augusta’s Memorial Bridge so we could re-deck the bridge; we did the same on I-295 southbound last year so we could make highway improvements. Both projects were successful and well-received in the state.

“We try to never underestimate the public. If you give them good reasons why you have to get something done, they will work with you. People understand the need for road improvements. If they are delayed five minutes because of our work and they weren’t told there would be a delay, then they get upset. As long as they know there will be a delay, they don’t mind.

Funding MaineDOT projects is an ongoing challenge —

“Our estimate over the next ten years, assuming the current revenue stream continues, is that we will have a gap of some $3 billion. Every year we project a gap of $300 million. That ten-year capital forecast just looks at how we can maintain our existing system. This is significant and shows that we really could use an infusion of funding, like the Recovery Act, every year, to keep up with needs.

“The federal highway bill is up for reauthorization at the end of September. We base highway funding in this country on consumption of gasoline. Driving less—saving fuel—while achieving good social goals, result in fewer revenues for the state and federal governments. For the next federal highway bill, I do wonder how they will find the funding to address our national needs with a declining revenue base. We need federal leadership on this, because states just can’t go it alone.

“Our funding is not enough. Concrete went through the roof, as the Chinese are well on their way to building an interstate system that will be bigger than our own. Next it will be South America or Africa. Asphalt costs are high, and they haven’t gone down, even though oil has.alt

“The world has changed so much since I became commissioner; gas tax revenues are declining, construction costs going up. One of the biggest challenges has been running an agency at a time when costs can increase as much as 35 percent in and 18-month period. The volatility, the cost swings, and the uncertainty of funding make it stressful for our workers and communities.

“We have absolutely the best people at MaineDOT—often they don’t get enough recognition. Transportation is like the furnace in the basement. If it’s working you don’t think about it, but when it’s not, it becomes your highest priority. But the impact transportation can be transformative for people and businesses.”