Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Roads and infrastructure should be priorities

While there is considerable debate about the role of the U.S. in Iraq and whether, in fact, we should bring the troops home now (my position), or begin a gradual deployment, eventually turning control of Iraq back over to the Iraqis, the cost of U.S. involvement in the country can no longer be discounted, or ignored. If you doubt what role our “war on terrah” is having on the domestic agenda and the well-being of ordinary Americans, you haven’t spent any time reviewing the current FY budget sent forth by the Bush administration. Domestic programs for the marginalized, working poor and middle classes (most of us) have taken not a back seat, but are stashed in the trunk, while the beneficiaries of military spending, namely Haliburton, Carlyle and other instruments of the minority elite, receive additional funding every time a request is put forth. What did Eisenhower warn us about back in the 50s?

While there are a myriad of negatives associated with the $415 Billion ($415,863,980,562 at this moment—it’s already risen dramatically) that we’ve spent in Iraq to date, with arguably little, or no measurable success, after we’ve come in and destroyed much of that countries infrastructure, the entire debacle seems counter-intuitive on a good day and sheer madness and lunacy at its worst.

Back in 1992, Jerry Brown spoke at the First Parish Church in Portland. At the time, he was running as a Democratic contender for president. While the press was given to caricaturing Brown, calling him “Governor Moonbeam” and other pet names, for what they perceived as Brown’s different way of conducting his affairs, both political and personal, he came across as reasoned, articulate and probably the scariest trait for a modern politician—intelligent.

He spoke a great deal on this particular night about the need for a nationwide program of infrastructure rebuilding and refurbishment, similar to FDR’s programs during the 1930s. As Brown mentioned at the time, which was nearly 15 years ago, our roads, bridges and railways have not seen major upgrades for nearly 60 years (and now, closer to 70).

In rural states, like Maine, maintaining the integrity of our roadways is particularly crucial. Since 85 percent of all our freight and 95 percent of all passengers move by truck and passenger vehicle, infrastructure maintenance and bridge upgrades should be regular and proactive in approach. Interestingly, while many clamor for lower taxes, often citing the neighboring New Hampshire, as our model for taxation, New Hampshire has condiderably less pavement to maintain, compared to Maine. Maine has 1.5 times New Hampshire’s road mileage, with 22,748 miles, to the Granite State’s 15,627. Maintaining roads costs money.

Not only does Maine have more roads, but Mainers are now moving to the suburbs, leaving the service centers of our state like a pack of lemmings. Over the past 40 or so years, the percentage of Mainers living outside service centers have grown from 37 percent, to just over 50 percent. Currently the average commute for Mainers is now roughly 44 minutes per day.

Here’s where it gets interesting: With Mainers driving more, driving longer and fully dependent on our roadways for our livelihoods, not to mention public safety concerns, the maintenance of our roadways should be of major concern to our state and local leaders and even our federal delegation. According to the Maine Development Foundation’s Measures of Growth report, 31 percent of the major roads in the Pine Tree State are in poor, or mediocre condition. The report calculates that the cost factor associated with these bad roads at $263 million dollars, statewide, or $282 per motorist. Not only are our bad roads costly, but they are also dangerous. Poor road design is a factor in a third of all crashes on Maine roadways, with the estimated cost of these crashes for 2005 coming in at $1.1 billion.

While I’m a proponent of developing light rail for a variety of uses, particularly pertaining to commuting, Maine is still a decade or more from that becoming a reality and it's the same in many other rural sections of the country.

This is a serious issue here and nationwide. I haven't even touched on food security issues in this post. While Maine should certainly approve pending transportation bonds for road improvements and upgrades, this matter is of national importance and needs to begin showing up on the radar screens of politicians in the Beltway. While its easy to lose site of reality in D.C., many of our elected officials come home to rural parts of the country, which are wholly dependent on automobiles and trucks for our survival. We need to begin to hold them accountable in order to have them address the infrastructure issue.

[I am indebted to the Maine Development Foundation for much of my information in this post, in particular, the Spring 2007 issue of The Catyalyst, their monthly newsletter. which is where my stats on Maine’s roadways came from.]

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