YORK — Town Manager Steve Burns remembers the night in 2010, when more than 300 people crowded into the York Middle School to express their disgruntlement with the Maine Turnpike Authority. The MTA at the time was proposing to build a large toll plaza in York, but had been stymied by efforts of the town and the citizens’ group Think Again, which worked to organize the meeting.
“You saw in action this grassroots group holding the MTA’s feet to the fire,” said Burns, of Think Again, “and making them accountable for their actions.”
In 2010, Think Again was already several years into its efforts to stop that first toll plaza, which ultimately proved successful. And they picked up the ball again in 2014, when the MTA proposed another plaza. In both cases, Think Again argued against cash booths entirely and in favor of electronic tolling.
The second time around, however, the MTA’s proposal for a plaza that offered cash and electronic alternatives won the day. And in the summer of 2018, after 12 years of effort, Think Again disbanded even as work began on the new plaza.
For their indefatigable efforts over more than a decade, The York Weekly names Think Again as among its Movers and Shakers for 2018.
Former state Sen. Dawn Hill remembers those early days when she was a newly elected state representative. She would go on to offer support to the group and also work to uncover wrongdoing by then-MTA director Paul Violette.
“I was stonewalled so often in Augusta that there were times that I said to myself, ‘What’s the point?’ Then I’d go to a Think Again meeting or I’d see one of them, and they’d say they’re the point. The town’s the point. They kept me going,” said Hill. “I felt like they believed in me. Everyone in Augusta was saying I’m a troublemaker, so to have them in the background saying, ‘We believe in you,’ it was important to me.”
The group over the years attended hearings in Augusta, took bus rides to MTA board meetings and filled the room, held monthly meetings in York, and kept pushing for an all-electronic solution that they believe is the only practical alternative.
“For a citizens group to fight for a dozen years and be so consistent, to show up again and again with busloads of people, to engage the community, that’s impressive,” said Burns. “It’s easy to get riled up. It’s harder to be consistent.”
“The Think Again people were intelligent, they recognized a wrong, they didn’t want to complain but had a call to action and spearheaded a movement that even more impressively hung in there for more than 10 years,” she said. “Excuses don’t hold water. They stayed right to the end, to the last thing they could possibly do. That’s impressive. They won in many, many ways.”
Think Again’s Marshall Jarvis said it was clear to Think Again members from the outset that the first plaza proposal – a massive cash-booth only model that would likely have involved taking land and/or homes by eminent domain – was wrongheaded.
“I think it was the injustice of what the MTA was telling us they were going to do – that they were willing to take people’s property regardless of the effect locally. It was indicative of government out of control,” he said.
The MTA came back with a second proposal years later, a much smaller hybrid plaza with cash and electronic lanes that would not involve taking of land. Burns said he still believes today that the group and the town made a cogent argument that an all-electronic gantry would be less environmentally damaging and makes more sense. But ultimately, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the Army Corps of Engineers agreed with the MTA proposal.
“I think we did have a winning case, but it was not worth the pain to continue to fight,” said Burns. “But we made the MTA uncomfortable and we made them affirm their thinking. I would have liked for us to have changed their minds, but we didn’t.”
“We still believe they aren’t looking into the future,” said Jarvis. “But the fact is the plaza is dramatically reduced, they’re taking much less land than they would have, and it’s significantly different from an operating point of view than the first proposal.”
Hill said it’s important to remember that grassroots activism can achieve results, as Think Again proved.
“I hope Think Again becomes the bar, that they become an inspiration to other groups and causes,” she said. “It’s important for people to know, ‘Hey, you can make a difference. You can be heard. You may not get everything you want, but you can make improvements.’ That’s the legacy of Think Again.”