Road Work Ahead

Posted July 14, 2009, at 10:20 p.m.

The search for an equitable and painless mechanism to fund highway and bridge work in Maine will continue for decades if legislators let it. Meanwhile, roads crumble, potholes deepen and bridges rust.

The time for action is now. Legislators on the Transportation Committee must choose a method to raise revenue for the highway fund before the state falls even further behind on maintenance and reconstruction projects.

The committee discussed the funding problem earlier this month, and it plans to meet again on the matter in August. Late in the last legislative session, gas tax hikes of 11 cents and 5 cents per gallon were considered, but failed to garner committee support.

There is no shortage of possible revenue sources, but some are more politically palatable than others.

Raising the gas tax during a recession, at the same time as gas prices are rising, seems cruel to consumers. Yet this excise tax is closely tied to use; you drive, you pay. Opponents of the tax argue that those able to use fuel-efficient vehicles pay less, while those whose jobs or businesses require them to drive trucks or vans pay more. And, of course, as gas consumption has dropped, the fuel tax has yielded less revenue, and even with an increase, it may continue to drop.

Some states have experimented with a device within a vehicle that measures miles driven. Again, the more you drive, the more you pay. Tolls have been considered. But building new tollbooths and limiting access to certain highways to be effective in getting the revenue are problematic and costly.

The most intriguing proposal came from Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, in the 123rd Legislature. His plan would have directed portions of the sales tax on vehicles and accessories and the vehicle registration excise tax to the Maine Municipal Bond Bank. The bond bank would then create a trust fund for the dedicated taxes and lend money to the Department of Transportation for road and bridge work.

Diverting any part of the sales tax would be a hard sell as the state faces recession-related revenue shortfalls. But the notion of creating an endowment, out of reach of legislators looking to plug holes in the General Fund, makes sense. Priming the fund with money borrowed through general obligation bonds might work. With interest rates low, this may be the time to bite the bullet and establish the fund. When the economy recovers, this endowment would generate more funds, which would result in more work.

Maine has 22,750 miles of public roads, of which the state owns 8,368 miles. With the current shortfall in the highway fund, DOT expects to complete work on just 230 miles of road this fiscal year. Such negligence is not acceptable. Maine’s road and bridge network is vital to its economic future.

The Legislature and governor must lead by identifying a way to raise revenue dedicated to this work, and not cower in fear of a public backlash. If it is explained well, the public will understand the need.

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