Maine House candidates spar over transportation issues, Brunswick base redevelopment

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BRUNSWICK — The three candidates in Maine House District 66 aired their views on transportation policy and redevelopment of Brunswick Naval Air Station Monday during the second of three forums.

The final forum, covering health care and education, was scheduled for Wednesday. The first, on food and energy, was held Sept. 7.

The series was sponsored by the campaign of Green Independent candidate Frederick Horch, who along with Republican Jonathan Crimmins is challenging Democratic incumbent Rep. Alexander Cornell du Houx.

Candidates gave statements and then fielded questions on the future of the base property, which the Navy will leave next year and which will be redeveloped as Brunswick Landing. They followed the same procedure on the topic of transportation.

Cornell du Houx noted that $20 million in revenue to the state is being lost through the base’s shutdown.

“We’ve been working extremely hard as a legislative delegation to make the (redevelopment) transition smooth,” he said, adding that the work in part led to a June bond issue that provided funding for a Southern Maine Community College campus on the property.

“The community college was essential to bring there, because one of the number one things (employers) look for when they come to a place to put their companies is, ‘do we have an educated workforce,’” Cornell du Houx said. “Maine is unique in the fact that we have a composite technology that is emerging. … We’re going to be combining with the Southern Maine Community College, the University of Maine and Bowdoin College to have a unique engineering system” on the base.

He also noted that the base has a robust information technology infrastructure, key in attracting a variety of industries.

Crimmins said he hoped Kestrel Aircraft Co.’s proposed $100 million endeavor at the base comes to fruition. He noted, though, that while the project is expected to generate 300 jobs, the base closure has cost nearly 5,000 jobs.

“We need 4,700 jobs to come back to the break even point,” he noted.

Crimmins called planned renewable technology initiatives at Brunswick Landing “a great idea,” but added that “we have to look at the broader picture. We need to bring in many different types of industries, many different types of organizations.”

He noted that the State Planning Office has said Maine’s primary industry is tourism. He suggested a tourism school be started at the base property, allowing students to gain the education there that they would otherwise have to obtain outside of Maine, “because there’s no school for tourism in the state.”

Crimmins said tax incentives are important in attracting industries, but that caps on the length of those incentives should be extended. “Let’s make sure that a company comes in here not for just five years, not for 10 years, but bring them in for a lifetime,” he said. “If we’re going to invest in them, let’s have them invest in us.”

While he has heard the term “brace for impact” connected to the base closure, Horch said he prefers to think of the event more along the lines of preparing for takeoff.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Brunswick,” he said. “How we develop the base will define our economic future. It will define a lot about the town, so it’s a critical thing to get right.”

Horch said the base should be redeveloped in a way that benefits both Brunswick and the state, and suggested a manufacturer of private aircraft, like Kestrel, isn’t necessarily the best option for Brunswick Landing.

“I am very serious about ending hunger in Maine,” he said. “If we’re going to spend public money … on the base, I want it to be addressing our strategic goals. And one of the goals I think the state should have is ending hunger.”

Horch said Kestrel is a risky endeavor. “As a businessperson, I ask, whose $100 million is it? Whose 300 jobs are they?”

He added that while he is a pilot and enjoys flying, “I think we have some strategic goals here. We have hunger problems, we have transition to energy problems. We have things we can do at the base, and every time we use the base for one of those purposes, we move ourselves closer to our strategic goals.”

Transportation

When the forum’s focus switched to transportation, Crimmins said Maine is at a crossroads, and that he’s read that 238 of its bridges need repair or replacement within the next few years, and that a quarter of its roads need immediate repair.

“Of course, now the question comes, where’s the money come from?,” he asked. “That’s millions and millions if not billions of dollars that are going to be required to fix our roads and bridges.”

Crimmins said that while increased public transportation is an option, Maine is largely a rural state. He praised the concept of passenger rail service coming to Brunswick, but noted its significant expense.

In trying to figure out how the roads and bridges will be funded, Crimmins called for the public to tell its representatives in Augusta what takes priority: “I want you to be able to drive the engine that tells us how we go about doing this.”

Horch said Maine’s transportation situation is unsustainable, that “all of our transportation depends on gasoline, none of which we produce or will ever be able to produce in Maine.

“So we’re completely dependent on a foreign source of energy,” he continued. “And at any moment we’re living with the risk of enormous price increases out of our control, and we really don’t have the ability to cope with that.”

He said he would like to see more people getting from place to place without depending on vehicles, instead going on bicycle or foot.

“More people, fewer cars,” Horch said. “That’s my vision for Brunswick.”

While he supports a train between Brunswick and Portland, Horch said a trolley connecting Brunswick with Freeport and Bath would be a better and less expensive option.

“Let’s do trolleys and trains like we used to do,” he said. “We used to have these systems here in Brunswick … we could bring something like that back.”

Cornell du Houx said that with the money not available to properly repair roads, more public transportation is necessary.

“There’s a reason why Route 1 is called the coastal parking lot in the summer; 8 million people come to Maine in the fall and summer … which is a wonderful thing,” he said, “but I think it would be even more wonderful if they could jump on the train in Boston and come all the way up to Rockland, and past there up to Acadia.”

He said Maine has a large rail infrastructure that was used years ago, but not today, thanks to the rise of the automobile industry.

While vehicles and the highway system serve a tremendous purpose, Cornell du Houx said, he called for an increased movement of passengers and freight by rail and buses.

He said the Amtrak Downeaster is the most successful railroad service in the nation, initially projected to increase ridership by 12 percent, but ultimately achieving a 28 percent jump. An Amtrak study, he said, showed that expanding the line to Brunswick will bring an additional 36,000 riders there.

“I think that will hopefully benefit the businesses in the area,” he said.

Cornell du Houx and Crimmins faced each other in the election two years ago. While Crimmins lost in every precinct, he fared better than previous GOP challengers in a district that Democrats have traditionally dominated.

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.