We’ve all shuffled through our monthly bills and at times slipped one to the bottom of the pile, deferring its payment for another time. Of course, this bill juggling doesn’t make the debt disappear; it just postpones the inevitable reckoning.
By not committing to a new way to raise revenue, the Legislature’s Transportation Committee has shuffled and juggled the bill on keeping Maine’s highways and bridges in good repair. In 2010, the committee — and then the full Legislature and governor — must choose a method of boosting income. Call it a fee, a revenue enhancement, an assessment, or even a tax, but some method must be selected.
Currently, the highway fund resembles a bucket with several half-inch holes being filled with a single half-inch hose. The cost of asphalt, steel, gasoline and labor have all spiked significantly in recent years as construction demand has grown in China and India. That has meant that funding has not kept pace with cost. Accelerating that trend has been the fact that when gasoline prices cracked the $4 per gallon threshold, many Mainers permanently changed their driving habits, which has resulted in lower fuel tax collections.
The deep national recession has eased some of the costs of road and bridge work, and the federal stimulus funding has helped Maine catch up on some work. But as the economy recovers next year, the gap will widen again.
One of the more interesting plans to increase revenue floated in the committee had the state creating a fund in the Maine Bond Bank from which the Department of Transportation could borrow. If that is too clever or too innovative, the old stand-by of raising fuel taxes remains.
The most equitable method would somehow link miles driven with the amount of tax paid. There are several sensible models for achieving this. But in the absence of a plan on which everyone can agree, the committee must bite the bullet this session and choose some revenue mechanism.
Maine has 22,750 miles of public roads, of which the state owns 8,368 miles. Throughout the foreseeable future, the state will not be able to keep pace with necessary repairs and maintenance. 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.