Pothole Politics

Posted Feb. 14, 2010, at 6:31 p.m.

Frost heaves and potholes are symptoms of state government’s unwillingness to adequately fund a comprehensive transportation policy. Maine’s Route 15, a vital link from Bangor to the Moosehead Lake region, has begun resembling a roller-coaster ride, and local officials are demanding the state Department of Transportation begin fixing the road.

Their concerns are well-founded. The precarious central Maine economy relies heavily on tourism. If the Plum Creek development plan comes to fruition, that tourism could grow significantly.

Moosehead Lake innkeepers recount how prospective guests often ask about the roads linking I-95 to the region; the innkeepers wonder if their prospective guests are picturing a stagecoach line where streams must be forded and wild animals kept at bay. Rep. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, who serves on the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, lent some truth to that myth by referring to Route 15 as a “goat trail.”

The problem, not surprisingly, comes down to money. Government gets its money from taxes. Few in Maine government want to raise taxes, or create new schemes to raise revenue dedicated to road work. TRIP (The Road Information Program), a transportation industry advocacy group, estimates Maine needs to spend $3.3 billion over existing budgets over the next 10 years to catch up on road maintenance projects.

In its October 2009 report, “Falling Behind: The Condition and Funding of Maine’s Roads,” TRIP concluded that “unless Maine is able to close its transportation funding gap, the condition of the state’s roads, highways and bridges will deteriorate … and economic development opportunities in the state will be lost.”

Rep. Thomas suspects DOT is deliberately delaying rebuilding Route 15, a “carefully orchestrated plan,” he told the Bangor Daily News, to squeeze legislators into approving a gas tax hike. That take on transportation problems is absurd. Rep. Thomas has argued credibly that DOT should spend less internally and more on roads and bridges, but he’s barking up the wrong tree on this issue.

The problem dates back much further. Nearly a third of state road and bridge work is paid for with money that originates from the federal government. And the federal government has backed away from paying for such infrastructure.

In his 1982 State of the Union address, President Ronald Reagan argued for decentralizing transportation spending. He said, “neither the president nor the Congress can properly oversee this jumble of grants and aid,” and concluded that “the national government should be worrying about arms control, not potholes.”

Not coincidentally, before 1980, about 3 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product was spent on infrastructure. After 1980, the rate declined, and today it is about 1.3 percent.

The federal government must take more responsibility for funding infrastructure. President Thomas Jefferson’s treasury secretary, Albert Gallatin, proposed and oversaw an ambitious plan to build a network of canals extending into the westerly reaches of the original states. President Abraham Lincoln oversaw the building of the transcontinental railroad system. And President Dwight Eisenhower led the building of the interstate highway system.

Potholes are, in fact, the federal government’s problem.

http://bangordailynews.com/2010/02/14/opinion/pothole-politics/ printed on August 23, 2014