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'Hybrid Solution' — Lawmakers Eye Funding Patchwork to Fix Maine’s Roads, Bridges

Robert F. Bukaty
Maine Public
A pothole on Route 302 in Fryeburg in March 2015.

Even in this politically polarized era, there is one issue on which most state policymakers agree: Maine’s roads and bridges are in desperate need of repair. The only debate is how to pay for it, in a time of declining gas tax revenues.

This year, Gov. Paul LePage and lawmakers in both parties are hoping that some new, creative proposals will gain traction.

There are lots of statistics you could cite to highlight the degree of the problem at hand. Democratic Rep. Andrew McLean, House chairman of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, cites one in particular.

“Every single year — every single year — we underfund our transportation system by about $160 million,” he says.

That’s $160 million in what McLean and state transportation officials describe as “deferred maintenance.” That means the construction and repair projects have been identified by the state but, to date, not been funded.

“Those are all projects that have to get done, that should be getting done in a timely fashion, that is currently not getting done,” he says.

That $160 million does not include the projects the state would like to do — a wish list deferred.

Now, the rolling list of delayed projects is getting some attention, some of it not so good. Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state’s infrastructure an overall grade of C-, nothing to brag about. Neither was the D grade for Maine’s 23,000 miles of roads, about 37 percent of which are the responsibility of the state.

And, according to the Maine Department of Transportation, 1 out of 7 bridges are “structurally deficient,” meaning they’re falling apart. Nearly 1 in 5 is at least 80 years old.

“We’ve got to find another way to source our highway fund,” says Naples Republican Rich Cebra, also on the Transportation Committee.

Cebra says declining gas tax revenues and fuel efficient cars are culprits.

“That directly impacts the highway fund because that’s where most of the highway fund comes from,” he says.

The highway fund, which pays for construction and repair of roads and bridges, is primarily supplied by Maine’s tax on gasoline or diesel fuel. But THE emergence of more efficient cars, hybrid vehicles and electric cars has depleted revenues.

Also, six years ago, the Republican-controlled Legislature froze indexing on the gas tax, the mechanism that increases the tax rate based on inflation. So to pay for improvements, the state has asked Maine voters to borrow money — $85 million two years ago, $100 million last year.

Arundel Republican Wayne Parry says the bonds will eventually cost Maine taxpayers over $300 million in interest payments.

“That doesn’t go into a road. That doesn’t go into education. That doesn’t go into any other program. That goes away to the bond holders,” he says.

Parry has a proposal that he hopes will halt the bond debt, at least in the short term. He’s sponsoring a bill that would direct sales tax revenues from cars and trucks into the highway fund.

Parry says it only makes sense.

“I would imagine that most people think that the sales tax on their cars goes to roads. And they’d be wrong,” he says.

And Parry says the estimated $120 million in revenue would go a long way toward taking care of the deferred maintenance tab.

Gorham Democrat Andrew McLean is a co-sponsor of Parry’s bill, although he worries it will be a tough sell for legislative budget writers. That’s because they’ll have to plug a $120 million hole in the general fund budget.

With an assortment of competing needs, that won’t be easy.

Gov. LePage’s plan to increase transportation funding is also likely to face obstacles. He wants to transfer most of the costs for the Maine State Police from the highway fund to the general fund.

The budgeting trick could generate $20 million in transportation funding a year. The Transportation Committee supports it. The budget committee? Probably not, McLean says.

“We need to be pragmatic about a solution,” he says.

McLean doubts that budget writers will approve a big handout from the general fund. He suggests a third approach, one that diverts some auto sales tax revenue to the highway fund, but also boosts the gas tax and possibly some other vehicle related fees, too.

“It’s going to be a hybrid solution and both Democrats and Republicans are going to have to comprise on this,” McLean says.

So far lawmakers have been unable, or unwilling, to do that. Meanwhile, the state’s road maintenance to-do list isn’t getting any shorter, and any new projects are being pushed further into the future.