Has Maine’s Transportation System Reached the End of the Road?
How climate change, tech, and Covid-19 are forcing Maine to rethink its dependence on cars.
Has Maine’s Transportation System Reached the End of the Road?
Climate change, new technology, and COVID-19 are forcing Maine to rethink its dependence on cars.
by Tyler Wells Lynch
Illustration by Joel Kuschke
Photography by Peter Frank Edwards
Issue: March/April 2022
Each year the Maine Better Transportation Association holds a contest to honor the worst road in Maine. Past winners include potholed stretches of Route 201 in Moose River, Route 15 in Camden, and Spring Street in Dexter. In 2019 roads in Waldo County were so bad that residents of the town of Freedom attempted to recall two of their selectmen.
Complaining about Maine’s roads is a tradition as old as Maine roads. In 1909 Maine’s first commissioner of highways, Paul D. Sargent, lambasted the prevailing attitude toward road maintenance, which amounted to “working a section here and a section there when we can find nothing better to do.”
Back then, Mainers could travel from Portland to Caribou and all points between via passenger rail. For everything else they had horses, stagecoaches, and their own two feet. At the time, 86 percent of the state’s roads were dirt, and there was little reason to challenge the almighty railroad, which for decades had ferried wealthy vacationers from the south to the pastoral realms of rural Maine.
The personal automobile changed all that. The car expanded mobility and transformed the economy in the process. It opened the state to a new market of middle-class tourists—people who needed reliable, well-paved roads to reach the beaches, mountains, and woodlands of their beloved vacation lands. Commissioner Sargent saw the change coming, writing, “There is a growing sentiment in many sections of the state that the future development of our tourist and summer resort business depends largely upon the development of our system of trunk line highways.”
As the car became the dominant mode of transportation, the tourist sector became the state’s largest industry. By 1930 two-thirds of rural families in Maine owned automobiles. Gone were the fabled railways that trafficked Mainers from Portland to Boston or Montreal and beyond. Trolley lines went out of business. Roads carved the state into prepackaged consumer vistas, molding regional identities and emblazoning license plates with the slogan “Vacationland.” As E.B. White wrote from Maine in the 1930s, “Everything in life is somewhere else, and you get there in a car.”
Today, you can reach pretty much anywhere in Maine by car, but the infrastructure is fraying at the seams; 44 percent of major roads and highways are in poor or mediocre condition, according to the National Transportation Research Group. The most recent Maine Infrastructure Report Card issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Maine’s state roads a D grade. A 2019 study estimated the state needs $198 million in additional funding—roughly a third of the annual highway budget—all to serve an automotive infrastructure that some say simply feeds on itself, sucking more and more resources the bigger it gets.
Maine needs cars, but it also needs others ways of getting around. As climate change stresses the need to revolutionize or, at the very least, decarbonize transportation networks, the state finds itself in the position of being able to afford neither the status quo nor a complete overhaul. Other catalysts like the COVID-19 pandemic, changing commuting trends, and shifting demographics are forcing a reckoning with the personal automobile, putting Maine in the same fateful position it was in a century ago.
It’s been seven weeks since Fawn Burnette went grocery shopping. Disabled and without a driver’s license, she is an hour’s drive from the nearest bus stop, so she’s unable to get to the store to buy food. She hasn’t seen her therapist since before the pandemic. The MaineCare shuttle that services remote Houlton, which requires a day’s notice, is often already booked solid.
“I’ve missed a lot of medical appointments,” she says. “And I don’t always have the money to get around.”
When her nephew last visited, he got stranded in Bangor overnight because the last bus to Houlton left before he arrived at the station. “And I couldn’t get him,” she says, with a chuckle. The frustrating transportation options leave Burnette, 61, missing her native California, where even hitchhiking, she says, used to be easier. She’s not alone.
Over in Bar Harbor, state representative Lynne Williams knows well the trouble with Maine’s public transportation system, especially in rural areas. She used to practice law in Rockland and would pick up hitchhikers on her way to the courthouse. Most often, the hitchhikers were on their way to see a parole officer, visit a recovery group, or go to the doctor.
“Literally 90 percent of the people I picked up over the course of maybe five years were doing these positive things for their lives, things they needed to do,” Williams says. “And they didn’t have a car.”
Even in the Portland area, with greater access to train and bus services, getting by without a car isn’t easy. Transit agencies don’t coordinate with one another, so getting from one town to another is often a multimodal odyssey of fits and starts. “We haven’t changed routes based around the needs of the twenty-first century,” says Chris Chop, transportation director at the Greater Portland Council of Governments (GPCOG). “These agencies have modified routes over time, but they’re not always in line with other systems.”
But the demand is there. According to a recent study by the regional planning organization, ridership on public buses in the Portland area grew by 24 percent between 2013 and 2018, even as nationwide public transportation usage declined over the same period.
Buses can help ease congestion, but they still depend on a road system built for cars. The catch-22 is that, the more roads you build, the more funding you need to maintain them. Studies show road construction has the counterintuitive effect of swelling usage and adding to congestion. In Maine 65 percent of transportation spending goes to road maintenance and construction, covering some 8,200 miles—a public portfolio larger than all but six states in the country. The state’s public transportation budget, meanwhile, is among the lowest in the country—just 17 percent of the national average.
Before COVID, it was perhaps easier to look at the funding imbalance and recommend a more train- and bus-friendly budget. But the pandemic really gummed up the works of transit systems everywhere. Ridership and traffic revenues dried up almost overnight, partly due to fears of infection in close quarters, but also because of a general shift toward working from home. Some officials worry ridership figures may never fully recover. “There may be a permanent reduction in overall mobility,” says Kristina Egan, executive director of GPCOG. “That means less cars on the road and less people using public transportation.”
Complicating the postpandemic recovery is our looming environmental crisis. United Nations scientists estimate the world has until 2030 to take meaningful action to combat climate change. In Maine, cars and trucks are responsible for more than half of the state’s carbon footprint. While emissions from power plants in Maine have fallen in recent decades, emissions from vehicles have only risen. Empty roads might signal a sluggish economy, but they also might be needed to limit emissions.
So, how do we get out of this pickle? How does a scattered, wintery, rural state with a below-average median income overcome its inertial dependence on cars?
Egan is optimistic that the growing focus on climate change will attract federal dollars for big transportation projects. The national infrastructure bill passed last summer is set to bring some $2.4 billion in funding for Maine’s roads, public transit systems, and broadband networks over the next five years. That’s in addition to the $100 million transportation bond Maine voters approved in November. But for people like Tony Donovan and Paul Weiss, it’s all about a return to the old ways: trains.
Donovan and Weiss head up the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, which for over a decade has been advocating for expanded passenger rail service in southern Maine. Their principal project is to repurpose the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad between Portland and Lewiston-Auburn, which is currently a freight line, with the eventual goal of extending service to western Maine and Quebec. The project would resurrect a famous passenger line that, 100 years ago, connected Boston, Portland, Lewiston-Auburn, and Montreal.
“We need to start to connect our cities back to the way they were,” says Weiss.
Rail services account for less than 2 percent of the Maine transportation budget. Nationwide, railroads likewise receive about 2 percent of the federal budget. For much of the country, trains have been banished to the realms of novelty and nostalgia—except for those who actually use them. Poll after poll show broad support for expanded passenger rail service, and Maine has the advantage of already sitting on a vast, untapped infrastructure. The state currently owns more than 300 miles of railroad, on some of which new passenger lines are already being planned.
Last summer, the state legislature approved funding for two planning studies: one for the Portland-to-Lewiston/Auburn railroad and another for a proposed line between Portland, Waterville, and Bangor. Both would extend the highly popular Downeaster line that runs between Boston and Brunswick. The Downeaster has been one of Amtrak’s most successful projects in the country, reaching record ridership in 2019 with over 500,000 passengers.
Key to the challenge of expanding rail service, however, is a cultural dependence on cars and an aversion to big spending projects. The cost of the proposed Portland-to-Lewiston/Auburn line, for example, is estimated to be around $250 million.
“It does cost a lot of money, and people are always scared of spending money,” Weiss says. “But right now we’re spending money on the wrong things.”
For comparison, Maine’s annual highway budget is $675 million, a figure that has proven insufficient for meeting the state’s maintenance backlog. While road maintenance is more of an ad hoc expense, allocated to buttress existing demand, rail projects demand a more overhead view involving higher upfront costs, risk assessments, and ridership projections: how do you get people from point A to point B? Taking this perspective, the Department of Transportation commissioner, Bruce Van Note, cites high capital and operating costs as reasons why flashy rail projects often look like misshapen pieces of the puzzle.
Rail advocates may be further outflanked by another, even greener, segment of the transportation infrastructure: cyclists. For as long as Maine’s railroads have been out of use, they’ve been the target of cyclists, hikers, and pedestrian advocates who want to see those idle tracks reengaged as multiuse trails. “Rail trails,” as they’re called, create a web of nearly 400 miles of old tracks throughout Maine, and efforts now before the state legislature would add hundreds more. From an environmental perspective, the argument is sound: rail trails are as carbon-friendly as the people who traffic them. The problem is, their use comes at the expense of prospective rail projects. Unless a rail trail runs alongside an existing passenger line (as does with the proposed trail between Portland and Auburn), the choice is binary: rail or trail.
While the Maine Trails Coalition has called for the preservation of some tracks, rail advocates are far from convinced. “To have this state resource sitting there, being destroyed every year by another mile of trail, is like having a grand piano and using it as a coffee table,” says Weiss.
Rail proponents are optimistic that the Lewiston and Bangor extensions will happen despite the cost. Some, like Weiss, believe the project is more than just a good idea: it’s necessary. Connecting all of Maine’s major cities via passenger rail could take hundreds of thousands of cars off the road. The railroads that connect Maine’s cities can hold more passengers and freight than the Maine Turnpike. And the maintenance is much simpler. Roads, on the other hand, are repaved on average every seven years, and still Maine’s rural roads rank among the worst in the country.
Rail advocates, like cyclists, are nothing if not passionate. Last year, at a meeting of the Transportation Committee of the state legislature, a bit of drama unfolded as commissioner Van Note accused representative Williams of being a mouthpiece for the Maine Rail Transit Coalition. The commissioner later apologized to Williams in private, but the spat reflected the larger disagreement over how to best modernize the state’s transportation infrastructure.
The state’s four-year climate action plan unveiled by Governor Janet Mills in 2020 offers the building blocks for a modern, clean energy economy but doesn’t mention trains. With regard to the state’s biggest carbon emitters, cars and trucks, the plan depends entirely on electrification.
“It’s all about an asphalt system of transportation that they hope to be operating electric cars on,” says Donovan. “They hope that they can move the needle from 1 percent ownership of electric cars to 100 percent.” No one—including Donovan, Weiss, and Williams—opposes electric vehicles. Weiss says he owns two himself. The problem is the time frame. The most rosy projections estimate electric vehicles will make up only a little over 40 percent of global road traffic by 2050.
For the Maine Department of Transportation, the imperatives of climate change, COVID-19, and new vehicle technologies have to be filtered through the lens of funding. Is there enough of it?
The state can only afford to do so much by way of big infrastructure projects, and to advance one mode of transportation often comes at the expense of another. From that perspective, focusing on the car—which is, at the end of the day, the dominant mode of transportation in the world—makes sense. Electric vehicles are mostly privately owned, and thus reflect an independent sector of potential progress on emissions. The idea is that, through incentive programs, land-use policies, and a modernized infrastructure, Mainers will eventually make the transition to EVs on their own.
“The electrification of the personal automobile is not the thing that’s talked about the most,” says Commissioner Van Note. “But I think it’s the most meaningful,”
Of course, plenty of Mainers can hardly afford gas-powered clunkers as it is, and not everyone has a driver’s license. Others are wary of arguments that hinge on consumer discipline as the best way to avert global environmental catastrophe.
“EVs are not the solution to Maine’s transportation infrastructure,” Weiss says. “They’re part of it. We’re now at that point where we have 15 years to do these huge climate initiatives to take 50, 60, 70 percent of the emissions out of our transportation methods, and if we don’t make the right choices, it will not be sustainable.”
But carbon-friendly transit options are not necessarily mobility-friendly. The $250 million Downeaster extension, for example, isn’t going to do much for people like Fawn Burnette who just need to get to the grocery store.
Some transit planners look to charitable groups and public-private partnerships for solutions. In Millinocket, a coalition called Mobilize Katahdin serves up volunteer drivers for the Katahdin region, helping people get to medical appointments, grocery stores, and social gatherings. Around a half-dozen regional groups, like the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program in Augusta, offer MaineCare-covered rides and other transportation services. Many of the people using those services live in rural areas and have no other way to get around.
One thing everyone seems to agree on is that there’s no silver bullet. There’s no one mode or system that’s going to unify and solve Maine’s myriad transportation problems. Van Note, GPCOG, and transit engineers are all fond of the term “mode-agnostic” to describe this thinking. Instead of assuming which mode of transportation is best, the idea is to look at all the available service models—be it bus, train, or ferry—and then figure out how many riders will be using it, what the total cost of building the infrastructure will be, and how much it will cost to maintain and operate. Transit planners like GPCOG often deliberately avoid recommending specific modes for that reason, and the state’s transportation department maintains a similar approach.
But the position of being modally agnostic doesn’t rescue Maine from its catch-22: the state can’t afford to maintain its present course of car dependency, nor can it afford to revolutionize its primary means of getting around. “We’re stretching the pavement thinner and thinner,” says Van Note. “We’re putting out contracts now that need funding to be delivered in the current legislative session for projects being done this year. Think of it as ‘just-in-time capital funding delivery.’ That’s not normal.”
The state is changing. Over the past two years, Maine saw its largest population growth in two decades, thanks entirely to migration into the state. Remote work is allowing people to move here, and throwing the future of commuting itself into question. Climate change and a generational shift in attitude away from car ownership has many Mainers looking for other ways to get around. For some, a bicycle-friendly rail trail is cheaper and more convenient than an intercity rail system. New urban transit technologies, like electric bikes and driver-less ride-share programs, will raise even more questions about who owns the road.
In the early years of the twentieth century, when Model Ts and Cadillac Tourings were dethroning the horse and buggy, some Mainers worried the changes brought by the automobile would be for the worse. Journalists touring cities warned of a growing “auto terror.” Some towns, like Bar Harbor, attempted to ban cars altogether. One 1905 missive in the Ellsworth American warned that motorists were “taking away the liberties of the people and should be looked upon the same way as any other class of robbers and murderers.”
Despite efforts to control the terror, the future couldn’t be stopped. As the infrastructure changed, so did Maine. Creating new divides along class lines, the car split access to the state’s verdant parks and landscapes while increasing its dependence on visitors from elsewhere. The almighty car quite literally shaped Maine’s economy into the one we know today, and brought about the Sisyphean road network we love to hate.
Now the state faces a new transformation, one with higher stakes and a blurrier prognosis. Given the complexity of Maine’s transportation infrastructure and the weighty forces laid upon it, it’s not surprising the prevailing attitude is one of disagreement. But no one believes the future is set in stone. As a public good, the transportation system is accountable to all of us. It is ours to enjoy, ridicule, and criticize. It is also ours to reimagine. Maybe the road ahead is less crowded than we think.
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