June 18, 2018
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State lawmakers struggle to fund road repairs

By Kevin Miller, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA — Lawmakers renewed their efforts Tuesday to address the growing backlog of road repair projects in Maine less than a month after several proposals to increase the gas tax failed to win support in the Legislature.

Members of the Transportation Committee are scheduled to hold two special meetings this summer to attempt to find a new way to fund the hundreds of miles of paving, patching and repairs required on older, state-maintained roads.

The committee wrapped up the first of those meetings — held Tuesday in the State House — with a better understanding of the scope of the problem but only a loose list of possible solutions.

“I think we’ve got some questions that need to be answered,” said committee member Rep. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, an outspoken critic of attempts to raise the gas tax.

The Maine Department of Transportation maintains roughly 8,000 miles of roadways in the state. About 4,200 miles of those roads are considered “unbuilt,” meaning they were not constructed to today’s standards and therefore need semi-regular attention to remain passable.

During the legislative session, Transportation Committee members had put forward a number of proposals — all involving some increase to the gas tax — to make more headway on the roughly 600 miles of “maintenance surface paving” needed on unbuilt roads annually.

But none of those proposals won approval. As a result, the highway budget passed by the Legislature contains enough money to perform maintenance paving on just 230 miles of roads this fiscal year and zero miles next year, according to the DOT.

On Tuesday, committee members discussed a range of ideas, including using more bonds, redirecting other DOT funds, reducing the number of roads maintained by the state and revisiting the gas tax issue.

The committee deferred any discussion of specific solutions to its next meeting, rescheduled for Aug. 11.

Several lawmakers said many of the constituents who contact them are willing to pay a few cents more per gallon as long as all of the money goes to actually repairing the crumbling roads that damage cars and pose safety risks to drivers.

Every penny increase in Maine’s gas tax — now set at 29.5 cents per gallon — is estimated to generate $7.2 million in revenue for the state.

Rep. Ann Peoples, D-Westbrook, said there is no magical solution to the state’s road maintenance problems.

“As far as I’m concerned, we put it all on the table and we talk about all of it,” Peoples said. “And if somebody is upset with us, then maybe they will have another idea.”

Committee co-chairman Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Hancock, said he realizes that any gas tax proposal submitted to the Legislature in 2010 will be dead on arrival because it is an election year. So Damon, who supports increasing the levy on fuels, said he hopes the committee will have a chance to present a recommendation to the Legislature later this year if lawmakers return for a special session to deal with ongoing budget shortfalls.

“I’m not willing to spend our time this summer putting together, on a fool’s errand … a proposal that isn’t going to go anywhere,” Damon said.

In response to questioning from Damon, Thomas acknowledged that it would be “awfully hard” to pay for 600 miles of maintenance annually without raising the gas tax. But Thomas remains convinced there are additional efficiencies to be found at DOT.

“I’m not saying we can do everything by managing our money better, but I think we can do part of it,” he said.

In other news, DOT officials also briefed committee members on Maine’s use of federal stimulus money. DOT officials are applying for additional stimulus money not yet awarded to the states, including:

• $25 million for a 4.3-mile connection between U.S. 1 and Route 161 in Caribou. State officials hope this will eventually be part of a north-south interstate into northern Aroostook County.

• $22 million to rehabilitate the rail lines between Calais and Perry to allow shipments to and from the port at Eastport to be put on trains.

• $7 million for a port crane with heavy lift capacity for the dry cargo pier at Mack Point in Searsport.

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