Wednesday, July 16, 2008

PRESS HERALD

Editorials

Transportation planning grows more challenging

The Maine Turnpike Authority and other transportation officials have to rethink plans.

July 17, 2008

Economists call it "rationality," and they often puzzle over instances when it doesn't work as expected, but the theory appears spot on when it comes to driving habits and the price of gas.

Which is to say that people are reacting to higher fuel costs exactly as one might expect: They're driving less.

That's good in the sense that it will temper future increases in fuel costs and mean less pollution from vehicle exhaust, but for state transportation officials, it spells trouble.

The impact of changing habits can be easily seen when it comes to the Maine Turnpike, where data on traffic volumes is readily available. But what's playing out for the Maine Turnpike Authority is also affecting the state Department of Transportation.

Turnpike traffic was down more than 4 percent last month, year-over-year, and it's down 1.27 percent for the year. That's a big change. The turnpike and the authority that runs it has been built on the assumption that demand for its services would steadily increase.

But with falling traffic comes falling toll revenue, about $546,000 less for this year over last and well below the 2.5 percent increase that had been projected. That, of course, means some belt-tightening for the authority this year, but as Executive Director Paul Violette is well aware, the trend has long-term implications for transportation planning.

"We have a shift in the paradigm here," he says. That shift could translate directly into putting off turnpike expansion projects, something Violette says his board will be discussing in coming months.

Already, a widening of the turnpike north of the I-295 interchange has been delayed from 2010 to 2015, and Violette says that project and others could be further delayed if fuel prices stay high and people drive less. "Some of the things we've been looking at could get pushed beyond our 10-year planning window," he says.

It is, no doubt, difficult to plan with energy markets in flux and sweeping policy initiatives dominating the national debate. But taking a second look at plans is exactly what the turnpike authority should be doing.

The same holds true for the DOT and Augusta lawmakers. A fall-off in gas-tax revenues means tight road budgets.

The tricky part is that no matter how many cars are on the road, the snow still has to be cleared and old bridges need to be replaced and roads repaved. Look for transportation planning to be a major challenge in Augusta in 2009.

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