One of the most difficult issues facing lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Janet Mills in the months ahead is how to adequately fund the state’s roads and bridges. The cost of repairs and reconstruction continues to increase, and fuel taxes have not kept pace as Mainers move to more fuel-efficient vehicles.
As part of his continuing series of interviews with Maine news makers, Mal Leary spoke with Gov. Mills about her views on transportation policy.
Leary: We have a bond issue on the ballot next week. How important is it for that bond issue to pass?
Mills: Oh, absolutely critical. You know, recently the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Maine's infrastructure network — roads, bridges, etc. — a grade of C minus. And other people have reported that, allegedly, Maine has the fourth worst infrastructure in the nation. Not a good record. Now, at the same time, we're one of the most rural states in the country - we have the most dispersed population of any state in the country. So those are challenges. Everybody who moves into, you know, the suburbs wants a perfectly paved road come right to their driveway and come right to their house. And, you know, we try to accommodate that at the local and the state level. But highway maintenance is a big challenge, both on the major highways and the secondary roads.
But a general fund bond issue is just kind of a stop-gap because we're falling behind. Right now the backlog, I believe, is somewhere on $160 million in projects we should be working on. But there's not enough resources. So how do we get to a point where we've got enough money from whatever resources to get the roads fixed?
Right. And others estimate that we need another $230-something-million to fill the gap in needs. I'm not an engineer. I don't make those estimates. I rely on those experts to do that. But that's exactly why I signed into law an emergency bill this spring to create a Blue Ribbon Commission, which has already met several times, which is a very bipartisan Commission, with a drawing on the expertise of the trucking industry, businesses, contractors and what-not, to help find solutions.
I have got to to bring up the gas tax because you mentioned that the group is being bipartisan. Yet, I just saw a whole bunch of social media ads, talking about “Janet Mills' secret 20 cent gas tax increase.” So how do you deal with that when they're kind of setting up the straw dog right now, that you can't have a gas tax increase as part of the solution.
I don't respond to partisan social media attacks and trolls and the like, they're not worth responding to — continuing to talk with members of both parties in the Legislature. These are highways across Maine. They're in Democratic districts and Republican districts. They are not Democratic roads or Republican roads, they're our roads. We share the roads, we share the burden of keeping them maintained. I don't know anybody who hasn't hit a bad pothole this spring.
Aren't you going to have to have some new money here? I don't know where it's going to come from anymore than you do, whether it's excise fees or a per-mile charge on electric cars and putting that into the highway fund. Aren't you going to have to have some new revenue to make this thing work, or are you going to be stuck with another bond issue?
They're going to need to make some recommendations about revenue sources in general, yes, not necessarily taxes or fees, but — and I don't pretend to know exactly what they're looking at — I have not been to the meetings. That's why I gather them together, because they have the expertise and I do not.
The reality is, don't you have to have new revenues?
There may be revenue resources that I don't know about. I know that if you look at the chart of what has happened in the last 12 years, we have done too much skim coating of roads and too little reconstruction of roads, which is why — ultimately, that's a hidden tax. When you don't repair and maintain roads appropriately to the best level then roads are in further disrepair a few years later, and you're paying more to repair those roads that weren't done properly or completely to begin with.
They may come back and say, well, we need a small gas tax increase, and we need a little tax here, we need a fee here. Are you open to listening to what they have to propose?
I have an open mind. I trust the members of this Commission to give me their best information, their best recommendations. That's about it. You're asking me to speculate about what they're going to come back with, and I just can't do that.
I don't think I'm asking you to speculate. I'm asking you, will you be open if they come back with some sort of new revenue? Because that's what I'm hearing from Commission members, is we can't close that gap without some more money.
They were asked to look at and evaluate the current funding system — just basically the gas tax and some fees and what-not — and recommend options. That's what I expect them to do.
Do you think you can get a solution that's going to hold up? A long term solution? I know that's what you want in this upcoming session when the Commission reports back.
Whatever solution they propose, I hope that it is fair, that it respects the privacy of consumers and users of the roads, that it is equitable, and that it is simple and efficient to administer, and that it's based on use.
Originally published Oct. 31, 2019 at 4:42 p.m. ET.