Maine highway budget shortfall estimated at $720M

Posted Nov. 10, 2010, at 5:27 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A looming $1 billion gap between revenues and projected spending in Maine’s general fund budget for the next two years tells only part of the state’s dreary financial story. Its highway fund is facing a potential shortfall of $720 million in the next two-year budget cycle, state analysts say.

The $720 million represents capital improvements for highways and bridges outlined in state law for which no funding is now in sight. State transportation officials say they anticipate funding for other maintenance and operations funded through the transportation and highway budget, $1.2 billion for the present budget cycle.

“It’s not, ‘The sky is falling,”’ Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner Bruce Van Note said Wednesday. “But it’s a severe capital challenge we’ve had for a long time.”

The state highway fund is separate from the $5.5 billion general fund budget, which faces a shortfall estimated at $1 billion for the two years starting July 1, 2011. Many observers see the general fund shortfall figure inflated by unrealistically high estimates of how much the state will fund public schools.

Likewise, the highway fund shortfall reflects an overly broad wish list of projects outlined in state law, critics say. Among the goals listed in the law are reconstruction by 2022 of principal and minor arterial highways that aren’t built to nationally accepted design standards, improvements and modernization of the interstate highways and increasing the pace of bridge repairs to keep pace with needs.

State Rep. Douglas Thomas, who has served on the Legislature’s Transportation Committee and has just been elected to the Senate, said the list of highway and bridge projects “is based on faulty information and a lot is based on people with a vested interest” in the work. Thomas, R-Ripley, said he believes there’s still room for savings through efficiencies — and none for higher taxes.

“There’s no way we can ask the people of Maine for another $720 million in the next couple of years,” Thomas said.

Republican Gov.-elect Paul LePage said during the campaign he sees no need to increase the fuel tax.

The highway budget is funded for the most part by motor fuel taxes, which have become static due to increasingly efficient vehicles.

Maria Fuentes, executive director of the Maine Better Transportation Association, which represents users and businesses involved in highway work, said the list of capital needs is more than just a “wish list.”

“We’re worried about it,” said Fuentes, referring to the shortfall.

She said that of the 8,400 miles of state-maintained highways, about 3,800, nearly half, need to be reconstructed. At the state’s present pace, that would take 200 years to accomplish, she said. At the same time, many of Maine’s bridges are reaching the ends of their useful lives.

“Does the state have to come up with $720 million immediately? No,” Fuentes said, adding that she believes putting off projects for too long is “a big risk.”

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