August 8, 2013

$100 million Maine transportation bond getting nowhere

As LePage and Democrats squabble over when to vote on it, a key waterfront project remains unfunded.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

Gov. Paul LePage and Democrats in the Legislature remained at odds Thursday over a $100 million borrowing plan for transportation projects.

LePage, reiterating a push he initiated at the end of the legislative session, sent a letter to Democratic leaders Wednesday urging them to reconvene the Legislature in August and vote on the bond plan that he proposed earlier this year.

But Democrats, who hold the majority in the Legislature, said they will reconvene in September to confirm the governor's latest round of political appointments and pass a comprehensive bond plan that includes funding for transportation projects, research and development, and higher education.

Democratic leaders say their plan would let voters consider their proposal at the polls in June. LePage's proposal needs approval by the end of this month to go to voters in November. The Maine Constitution requires non-revenue bonds to have voters' approval.

Timing may be less of an issue than politics. Democrats want to ensure that the next bond proposal includes funding for projects beyond transportation, and are using their majority to make sure that happens.

LePage and the Republican minority are more inclined to support a bond plan that focuses primarily on transportation projects.

The balance of power ensures that both sides will get some -- but not all -- of what they want. A two-thirds majority is required to send bonds to voters, so any Democratic-initiated proposal will need Republican votes to pass.

Both sides continued to use public statements Wednesday and Thursday to make their respective cases.

In a statement released Thursday, LePage said he was disappointed that Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, were holding up a transportation bond with broad bipartisan support.

"This bond is supported by Democrats and Republicans alike, yet they continue to delay," LePage said in the statement. "I had hoped we could get past this pattern of holding up good legislation that we all agree on -- it's not in the best interest of Mainers."

Democrats have noted that the governor delayed issuing bonds that voters had approved in 2010, including funding for transportation projects.

Alfond and Eves said in a joint statement Wednesday that LePage's transportation commissioner assured lawmakers in July that the department's work plan was funded for the 2014-15 construction season.

The Maine Department of Transportation's work plan includes the governor's $100 million bond for 2014 and 2015 construction projects. LePage's plan also includes $19 million for multimodal projects, including a key development on the Portland waterfront, said DOT spokesman Ted Talbot.

That project involves extending railroad tracks to the International Marine Terminal, a crucial piece in a deal involving Phineas Sprague Jr., Pan Am Railways and Eimskip, the Icelandic shipping company that moved its North American operations to Portland in March to expand its container service operation here.

Eimskip says it moved to Portland after state officials assured the company that Pan Am Railways tracks would be extended about 1,500 feet so freight trains could reach the International Marine Terminal, where Eimskip's ships dock.

The company told the Portland Press Herald earlier this week that extending rails would allow containers to move from ships to trains at the same terminal for the first time in the port's history.

Eimskip now trucks its containers along Commercial Street to the Merrill Marine Terminal, at a cost that's not sustainable, according to a company spokesman.

Talbot said Thursday that the Portland deal underscores the urgency of the governor's bond proposal, which gives state transportation officials discretion to identify priority projects for funding.

Democrats say they believe that the transportation projects will move forward even if the bonds aren't put on the ballot until June.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: @stevemistler

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