AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of a legislative committee failed to reach consensus Tuesday on how to address Maine’s deteriorating road network, opting instead to revisit the issue again early next year.
The Legislature’s Transportation Committee had been charged with coming up with recommendations for generating approximately $25 million a year for maintenance of some of the worst roads within the state’s jurisdiction.
Arguably the biggest issue under consideration was whether to increase Maine’s gas tax to help replenish the budget for “maintenance surface paving,” which is typically a thin layer of asphalt intended to keep older roads passable.
There appeared to be bipartisan support on the committee for raising the gas tax, but it was not universal. And even those in support of a gas tax increase struggled to coalesce behind a single proposal.
Ultimately, the committee decided to take no action at all. Several members expressed concerns about releasing a proposal five months before the Legislature’s next scheduled meeting and less than three months before an election featuring at least one tax-related referendum question.
“I am wondering if we wouldn’t be better off waiting until January and not complicating what is going to be a very complicated election,” said Rep. Ann Peoples, D-Westbrook.
“I don’t think we are anywhere near unanimous,” said the committee’s co-chairman Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Hancock. “I think we all understand we have a need.”
Earlier this year, Transportation Committee members floated a proposal for an 11-cent increase to the gas tax spread over four years. That proposal was whittled down to 5 cents over two years before being spiked once it reached the full Legislature.
The Department of Transportation followed suit by announcing in June that it was canceling more than 130 maintenance paving projects — including all projects planned for 2010 — because of a lack of funding.
Anyone who fills up in Maine now pays 29.5 cents in fuel taxes per gallon of gasoline and 30.7 cents per gallon of diesel. Every penny increase would result in roughly $7.1 million in revenue for the state, according to DOT officials.
Several lawmakers proposed a 3-cent hike combined with shifting money from other programs to come up with more than $25 million for paving. Secretary of State Matt Dunlap presented the committee with a list of fees that could be increased — such as raising the specialty plate renewal fee from $15 to $20 — in order to generate $6.7 million.
But most of the debate came back to the gas tax.
“I have come to the conclusion in my mind that there is only one route for this committee to take as far as establishing some sustainability in the road system, and that is an increase to the gas tax,” said Rep. George Hogan, D-Old Orchard Beach. “I think this committee has to show some courage.”
Other lawmakers had different views, however.
Rep. Charles Theriault, D-Madawaska, said a gas tax increase would not sit well with residents of his district. Instead, business owners he has spoken with have been more amenable to a 1-cent increase on the sales tax with some of that money dedicated to transportation.
Theriault also cautioned his colleagues against framing the debate in a way that pits urban areas against rural areas. “We all have a problem so I think we need to work together on it,” he said.
Rep. Douglas Thomas, R-Ripley, said he believes the state could come up with additional paving money through efficiencies at the DOT and redirecting money from less-pressing projects. Thomas has been especially critical of repaving and reconstruction work on Interstate 295, which he said was in far better shape than other roads in the state.
Thomas said the committee and the DOT need to work to create more “balance” in road funding, and that could mean redirecting money from what he described as nonessential bridge projects.
“I think this is one of the worst times possible to ask people to pay more” for fuel, Thomas said.