The Maine Viewpoint
PORTLAND PRESS HERALD
Breaking the Gridlock
It might be tempting to dismiss commuter rail and express bus service for southern and central Maine as a nice idea that we can't afford. After all, isn't the state strapped for cash, faced with shortfalls in its operating budget and the transportation fund?
But those concerns are exactly why it makes sense to investigate public transportation options now. A one-million-dollar, federally funded study should answer some key questions about the feasibility of adding to the ways Maine people get around.
One question will not have to be asked: Doing nothing is not an option. Traffic on Interstate 295 between Scarborough and Brunswick is the heaviest in the state, and is projected to get worse. Plans are already on the drawing board to expand the highway from four lanes to six in Portland. That's a project that would consume much of the state's road-building budget.
The old way of funding transportation is not working. In the past, gas taxes provided enough income to build and maintain roadways, but those revenues have not kept up with costs. Alternative funding methods, ranging from general fund appropriations to increased use of toll roads, have been equally unpopular.
Alternative transportation could be a way to manage those costs. That's why a well-funded study of commuter rail and bus service makes so much sense now.
Commuter rail is different from the Downeaster rail service that currently links Portland and Boston with five trips a day. Maine Department of Transportation officials envision self-propelled light-rail cars that would run twelve to fifteen trips a day, connecting Brunswick, Portland, and Auburn. If the study finds that the service is feasible, it could be eligible for up to seventy-four million dollars in federal money that was set aside for transit projects in small cities like Portland.
Before such a service is implemented, it is important to identify how it would be funded in the long term. No form of transportation works without some government subsidy, but state funding in Maine is not likely to be easier to come by in the future. If developing public transportation would avoid other investments, money collected from gas taxes and tolls could arguably be tapped to fund alternative transportation systems.
The question this study should answer is simple - whether expanded rail and bus service is an option Maine can afford to pass up.
BANGOR DAILY NEWS
In search of common grounds
Most non-coffee drinkers will, if pressed, admit to liking the smell of freshly brewed coffee. The smell of roasting coffee beans, however, isn't as universally appealing, Patrick Reilley readily admits, comparing it to "burned toast." A neighbor of Mr. Reilley's roasting operation in Rockland, Rock City Coffee Roasters, finds that smell objectionable enough to have complained to City Hall.
The roasting is done three times a week, in eight-hour stints. The roasting operation, in a commercial zone also on Main Street, was started because Mr. Reilley and his partner, Susanne Ward, could not get roasted coffee beans of the quality they liked for their coffee shop, bakery, and bookstore. They have been roasting for five years.
The neighbor purchased a building in the commercial zone about a year ago and decided to live in it. Not liking the steady smell of beans roasting, he complained to the city's code officer, who in turn referred it to the new city attorney.
Rockland has a committee whose charge it is to issue rulings on smells. As Mr. Reilley puts it, "Rockland has a history of olfactory landmarks." These include its now defunct fish processing plant and a landfill in an old quarry.
The odor committee concluded the roasting beans did in fact emit an objectionable smell, and the city ruled that Rock City Coffee Roasters was in violation of ordinances, calling it a "nuisance." Mr. Reilley has offered to extend the ventilation stack pipe, but wonders whether that five-thousand-dollar investment will win over the committee on what is a very subjective judgment.
Living with less-than-pleasant smells certainly can diminish the enjoyment of one's home, but a lone neighbor repeatedly complaining about an existing business can also be seen as tyranny of the minority.
There are no easy answers for the conflict, but Maine has always leaned toward a "live and let live" ethic. Perhaps Mr. Reilley and his critic could sit down over a cup of coffee and work out their differences.
Colleges and the economy
The recent groundbreaking at the Hathaway Shirt Factory in Waterville was one of the biggest celebrations of good news we've seen in many years in central Maine. The proverbial "everybody" was there because they wanted to bask in the optimism.
The event was held on one of the big, still-empty floors - but they won't be empty for much longer. In a few months or a year, "everybody" probably will be invited back for a grand opening, and we will have that memory of the echoing vacantness to contrast to what will surely be a warm, well-lit, and trendy set of stores, offices, and apartments.
How this happened is a complex story involving private enterprise, public support, and a maze of laws and financing. But if you go all the way back to beginning, it happened because of higher education.
Colby College brought Paul Boghossian to Waterville. Boghossian went back to Rhode Island, where he developed other older buildings, but never forgot his alma mater. It was Boghossian who got this project rolling. He's a nice fellow who doesn't ask for all the credit, but it all began with him - and he's here because we have Colby.
This time it was Colby; another time it is Thomas College or Bowdoin or someone from the University of Maine system. But the point remains the same: Our education system, especially higher education, is perhaps our single greatest economic driver. As we make financial decisions in both our private lives and at the government level, that's something that should be prominent in our thinking.
MAINE SUNDAY TELEGRAM, PORTLAND
A more accurate estimate of tourism
It's hard to see what Maine tourism officials have to complain about. After many years of overcounting the effect of their promotion efforts, the State Planning Office has come up with a more accurate measure. Instead of counting the dollars spent by Maine residents alongside those offered up by people from away, Maine will now only count the out-of-staters' money when evaluating the effectiveness of tourism promotion.
That makes a lot of sense. The Buxtonite doesn't go to Sunday River for the day because he saw an ad in a New York newspaper. And a Bangorian won't take a trip to Millinocket because he heard a spot on Boston radio. The state now rightly reckons that if a Maine family did not take an in-state day trip, it would probably have spent the money anyway, closer to home, but still in Maine.
The only people who are likely to be moved by promotions are those who live in the markets where the promotions take place. So if you are trying to measure the promotion's effectiveness, then it makes sense to count only the out-of-state money.
Furthermore, even with the in-state money removed, the total amount spent by tourists in Maine is still a huge number. In 2004, tourism accounted for $8.9 billion in total sales, without counting in-state day trips. That resulted in $376 million in taxes collected and supported 132,000 jobs. Those numbers rose in 2005 and 2006, showing a healthy trend, despite the new method of counting.
As long as people don't make an unfair comparison between numbers assembled the old way and those reported by the new method, the tourism industry should not be afraid. And lawmakers can be trusted to understand that the new numbers don't indicate a dramatic fall in tourism income.
It makes sense to promote Maine to people who live elsewhere. With competition for tourist dollars, Maine should put its brand in the marketplace and remind people planning a trip what the state has to offer. Maine supports the promotion program to the tune of eight million dollars a year, which is a share of what is collected from the meals and lodging tax.
In its report on the Maine economy, the Brookings Institution recommended increasing the lodging tax to preserve the things that make Maine attractive to tourists. That's a conversation worth having, and accurate information about where the money really comes from should be helpful.
SUN JOURNAL, LEWISTON
An `A' for consolidation
Municipal governments on both sides of the river were really hitting the books, studying hard, and participating in class for the last half of 2007, earning them an A grade in Consolidation 101. Lewiston and Auburn made remarkable progress toward finding ways to work together to save money.
In a report issued in December, Joint Services Coordinator Stephen G. Eldridge said city departments, in joint meetings, had identified ways to save at least $1.86 million per year by restructuring for greater efficiency. We emphasize the words "at least" because of the initial nature of Eldridge's report. He and two members of the Citizens Commission on Lewiston-Auburn Cooperation said that as the two cities actually begin restructuring, additional savings are likely.
The report, according to Eldridge, used a "bottom-up approach." Teams of two or three staff members from each city's municipal departments, including department heads, met on an average of every other week to talk about combining services and saving money. They even worked out models showing how their consolidated departments would look and work. Plus, they put their calculators and spreadsheets to work determining how much money the two cities were likely to save.
Since personnel costs are the largest single component of most municipal budgets, they also produce the largest potential savings, according to the report. While duplicated jobs would be eliminated, that would be done through attrition, with no current employees losing their jobs. There would also be some cost increases, particularly in bringing some Auburn workers up to Lewiston's generally higher pay scales.
But beyond gradually eliminating duplicative administrative jobs, the department teams generated some creative ideas for working better and smarter. For instance, the Public Works Team suggested specializing by having one municipal garage work only on heavy equipment, while the other repaired only smaller vehicles.
A consolidation might also allow the two cities to buy tools and equipment jointly. For example, buying a single garage sweeping machine could save thirty-five thousand dollars for each city.
For 2008, we will make two of our own recommendations: First, that the Lewiston and Auburn city councils begin work immediately on implementing the ideas in the report. Second, that the school committees in both cities immediately seek funding - or budget money - to hire their own joint services coordinator and begin the long process of consolidating services. If there is money to be saved in consolidating municipal services, there is as much or more that could be saved in our school budgets.
TIMES RECORD, BRUNSWICK
Spitting into the wind
The Maine Land Use Regulatory Commission's four-two vote in January against recommending the Black Nubble Mountain wind farm project in western Maine provides more fodder for those who argue that state government remains too timid or too susceptible to special-interest coercion to embrace progressive ideas. While the commission unanimously endorsed a wind farm on Kibby Mountain, a majority of its members caved in to not-in-my-backyard arguments that preserving the aesthetics of a remote area should be valued more than the clean energy generated by eighteen turbines on Black Nubble Mountain.
"By approving only the Kibby project and not the Black Nubble project, the commission sends a mixed message and has unfortunately elevated subjective aesthetic interests above the impending catastrophe of climate change," said Conservation Law Foundation's Sean Mahoney. By adding to potential precedent that tips regulatory balance in favor of a specific interests over common good, LURC created an obstacle for future wind power initiatives based on visions of a sustainable future, not just a view of the horizon.
MOUNT DESERT ISLANDER, BAR HARBOR
Sinking the cruise ship industry
Cruise ship rules proposed to help preserve a handful of jobs on U.S.-flagged ships operating in and out of Hawaii threaten the economic livelihood of tens of thousands of other American workers on the East and West coasts, including some on Mount Desert Island. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has proposed that all foreign-flagged cruise ships operating between U.S. ports be required to stop at a port outside the country for at least forty-eight hours. The total time spent in foreign ports would have to comprise at least 50 percent of the total time spent at U.S stops.
Currently, under the auspices of the Passenger Vessel Services Action of 1886, foreign-flagged vessels traveling between U.S. ports must make at least one stopover outside the country. Most of the vessels visiting Bar Harbor each year include Canada or Bermuda among their list of port calls.
This new interpretation of the 1886 law would effectively kill the cruise ship industry in Maine. Officials estimate that the more than eighty cruise ships visiting Bar Harbor last year helped generate more than $18 million in economic activity and nearly $120,000 in fees to the town. Researchers believe cruise ships in Bar Harbor help support more than 175 jobs. At a time when the federal government is considering a taxpayer rebate to help jumpstart our sagging economy, shelving this rule change would be an easy, no-cost way to prevent additional adverse economic impact all around the nation