The recent one-year anniversary of the tragic bridge collapse in Minnesota once again brought attention to the inability of many states to keep up with the cost of maintaining their roads and bridges.
This becomes an even more serious problem in many parts of northern and eastern Maine, where municipalities often do not have the tax base necessary to fund even basic road maintenance and where automobile transportation is our only way of getting to work, doing business or getting anywhere.
This is not only a safety issue, although many of our roads and bridges are becoming less safe, but also a critical economic development issue. Without well-maintained public road and bridge infrastructure throughout the state, Maine cannot expect to attract new businesses or keep the bigger businesses that we already have.
Unfortunately the state and the private contractors paid by our tax dollars to build and maintain this infrastructure are facing a skyrocketing rise in the cost of transportation construction materials. This is why we need to invest as much as we can now. Our money will buy much less every year we put off this important work and our local economy will suffer more and more. The Maine Department of Transportation has projected a $3.3 billion gap over the next 20 years between the costs of maintaining and upgrading our roads to appropriate standards and the amount of revenue we will have to spend on these projects.
We passed several bills in the 123rd Maine Legislature to boost funding for our many bridges that need repair or replacement and to repair roads throughout the state. With LD 2313, An Act to Keep Bridges Safe, we authorized Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle (GARVEE) bonds of up to $160 million. These bonds will be supported by a minor increase to vanity plate registrations, annual registrations and title fees. We also committed to an immediate increase from the General Fund to the Highway Fund of almost $13 million for capital improvements to bridges.
GARVEE bonds are different from general obligation bonds because we know that a reimbursement for our investment is already coming from the federal government. This makes the process considerably faster — once GARVEE bonds are approved by the Legislature the money is available and we can get the work started immediately. Projects can begin this construction season, while materials are cheaper, instead of after more damage is done when the ground thaws next spring.
With this legislation we also tasked the DOT to work with the University of Maine to implement an initiative to expand the use of new composite technologies in bridge maintenance and new construction. This will save taxpayers money by extending the life of our bridges and roads, but also could lead to the creation of new jobs in Maine and the expansion of the composite manufacturing that is already going on here. Further, these composites reduce the reliance on fossil fuels in the production materials used for bridge building and road repair.
The Legislature also boosted funding for road improvement through GARVEE bonds.
This funding will be added to the $136 million voters approved in last year’s bond package that, in turn, allows Maine to access almost $260 million in federal matching funds to fix and upgrade Maine’s roads and bridges.
Even though more funding is needed, these investments will make our transportation network more safe and reliable for all of us, and it will also encourage more economic development throughout rural Maine, not just in our urban centers. It will help make trips from Canada to spend money in Maine even more attractive, and will mean less wear and tear on all our vehicles.
Finally, this investment in our transportation infrastructure will create thousands of well-paying jobs in the private sector among the contractors who receive this taxpayer money to build and repair our vital transportation network.
We must continue this work, and my colleagues and I are committed to doing the careful planning and budgeting that will help keep our costs down and our roads up and ready for commerce.
Rep. Rob Eaton, D-Sullivan, represents District 34 in the Maine House.