May 20, 2024

Expert: Politics, roads don’t mix

AUGUSTA – A senior transportation adviser to Congress said Thursday that politics should be taken out of the funding authorization process for the nation’s roads and bridges.

“What had started as an aggressive program in 1956, to build out a [highway] system across the country, had [by 2005] come down to parceling out money and projects by congressional power lenders,” said Francis “Frank” McArdle.

“You had a chance to name a transportation bill in honor of your wife, or you had a chance to insert a bridge to nowhere,” the keynote speaker told participants at the 58th Maine Transportation Conference held at the Augusta Civic Center.

“Those engaged in those projects knew there were no standards for accountability or direction going forward and realized the policy could not continue,” McArdle said.

McArdle was a member of the 12-member National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission created by Congress in 2005 to examine and make recommendations to meet the needs of the country’s highway system for the 21st century. Also a senior adviser to the General Contractors Association of New York, McArdle spoke Thursday about his experience on the commission, which completed its work on July 7.

The panel comprised 12 members, representing federal, state and local governments; metropolitan planning organizations; transportation-related industries; and public interest organizations, according to the commission’s Web site.

The panel not only considered the current condition and future needs of the nation’s surface transportation system, but also discussed short- and long-term alternatives to replace or supplement the fuel tax as the principal revenue source to support the Highway Trust Fund over the next 30 years.

The commission’s final report included detailed recommendations for “creating and sustaining a pre-eminent surface transportation system in the United States” and plans for short-term and long-range funding.

The U.S. has had a transportation policy since 1915, when the goal was to link the nation’s state capitals by roads. In 1956, the policy expanded and led to the interstate highway system, “linking Americans to one another and to the world,” McArdle said.

He described the system as an enormous network of highways, ports, freight and passenger railroads and transit systems.

“It is currently the best surface transportation system in the world, and the challenge now is to ensure that it remains the best in the future,” he said Thursday.

In a review of the discussions among commission members at their meetings, McArdle pointed to a major transportation bill from 2005 that was signed by President Bush and covers the years 2005 to 2009.

“We recognized that things have fundamentally changed in the nation and the world that we didn’t have to accommodate in our discussions of reauthorization at the state level or the federal level,” McArdle said in arguing for the need for a reauthorization of the policy this year.

“The vision we created was a way forward from what most people recognized as a failed or even nonexistent federal transportation policy in 2005.”

Other speakers during Thursday’s all-day conference sponsored by the Maine Better Transportation Association included state Transportation Commissioner David Cole; Donald Humphrey, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Maine; state Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee; Anne Canby, former transportation secretary for Delaware; and Gregory Nadeau, deputy commissioner at DOT.

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