Pump Pain, Pothole Pain

Posted June 03, 2009, at 8:46 p.m.

A compromise plan approved by the Legislature’s Transportation Committee to raise the gasoline excise tax by a nickel should be embraced by the full Legislature and the governor.

As has been reported for the last four years, the gap between available revenue for rebuilding our roads and bridges and the escalating cost of materials has grown. It’s not a Maine problem, but a dilemma that has been observed throughout the U.S., and in many ways caused by growth in China and India. Though the state Department of Transportation has tapped other sources of funds, such as borrowing through bonds and using $131 million of federal stimulus funds for road and bridge work, the gap remains critical.

Maine’s heavy reliance on the gas tax to fund road and bridge work also contributed to widening the gap between funds and work. As gas prices topped $4 last year, Mainers drove less or purchased fuel-efficient vehicles, and so bought less gas. Less gas sales meant less gas tax revenue.

The tax won’t be popular. Who wants to see government increase the cost of gasoline, when oil cartels are doing it as well? But the pain at the pump must be endured if the state is to address the pain of hitting potholes. Quality transportation infrastructure is essential to an economy. If businesses can’t rely on their products getting to market quickly, if consumers avoid traveling over bad roads to go shopping, if tourists don’t venture into Maine’s hinterlands because of poor roads, we all lose.

The plan approved in committee creates a temporary 5-cent hike that expires in two years. An earlier plan that would have permanently increased the tax by 11 cents lost Republican support, and Democrats did not want to be the lone supporters of the hike.

The current indexing mechanism, approved during the King administration, ties increases in the fuel tax to the rate of inflation. That was a wise approach, moving the discussion away from the perennial fights over tax hikes. But with inflation so low because of the recession, the fuel tax would have increased by just 1.1 cent on July 1. The gas tax is presently 27.6 cents per gallon.

By the time the two-year hike expires, the Transportation Committee ought to have wrestled with the philosophical questions that surround paying for road and bridge work. There are many options, such as instituting more tolls and per-mile user fees, bonding more work and dropping some of the other programs paid for by the fuel tax. There are no pain-free fixes, but a sustainable, reliable payment scheme must be chosen to ensure we can still get there from here.

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