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Maine Delegation at Odds on Replenishing Highway Trust Fund

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Brendan Loy
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Next month, the federal highway trust fund will fall so low that it will no longer provide funding for new highway and bridge projects. In Maine, that means about a 30 percent cut in federal funds. Some in Congress want an immediate gas tax increase. But Maine’s congressional delegation is divided on the issue.

Mainers are paying 30 cents a gallon in state gas taxes, but only a little over 18 cents in federal gas taxes. The federal tax has not increased in more than 20 years, and the trust fund is running low because the cost of new construction and repairs has gone up while revenues have stayed about the same.

Sen. Angus King, an independent, says Congress needs to act this month on the problem. "The federal highway trust fund goes broke this August," he says. "And there will be no new federal funds for new programs anywhere in the country, including Maine, after this fall."

King says ongoing repair and construction projects will continue to receive funds.  But he says without any action by Congress, the backlog of needed bridge and highway repairs will continue to grow. One proposal with bipartisan support is to raise federal fuel taxes by 12 cents a gallon, a proposal Democratic Congresswoman Chellie Pingree is willing to support.

"I would be very happy to go along with that," Pingree says. "You can say bipartisan, but then when it hits the House floor suddenly everybody scatters in different directions, and says, 'Oh no, I wasn’t going to vote in favor of that.' I am glad there is a proposal out there; I think it’s time to do that. I also would be happy to look at this idea that has been floated around a use tax."

Both King and Pingree say any long-term solution must address the growing number of electric vehicles on the roads that are not paying anything into the highway trust fund. Several lawmakers have suggested a use tax on such vehicles. Republican Sen. Susan Collins agrees a long-term solution is needed, but she does not like the gas tax proposal.

"I don’t think a 12-cent increase in the gas tax is the right way to go," she says. "That would have a devastating impact on many Mainers that have no choice but to drive long distances to get to work, to school, to shop."

King says what he does not like about the proposal is that it would shift the burden for roads to other taxes.  He says as drafted, the measure requires a dollar-for-dollar reduction in other federal taxes to make up for the new revenue raised by the gas tax increase.
 
He says some sort of new user fee structure is the solution because the economy will suffer without an adequate transportation system. He says fuel taxes may have to be part of a long-term plan, but he doubts that is what Congress will do facing the crisis this summer.

Congressman Mike Michaud, a Democrat who serves on the House Transportation Committee, agrees. He says the tax proposal will not make it to the House floor for a vote.

"There will have to be a short term solution," Michaud says. "I can’t imagine the committee will be able to pull together a long term funding solution or reauthorization, so I think, realistically, there will be a short-term solution until the end of the year."

Michaud says he expects the short-term solution will be funded by closing some corporate tax loopholes. But when lawmakers discuss a long-term solution, he says they will have to consider all the options, from increased fuel taxes to user fees for electric vehicles and proposals to assess fees based on actual miles driven.