Are Maine roads, bridges in peril after lawmakers delay bond talks?

Posted July 12, 2013, at 1:29 p.m.
Last modified July 13, 2013, at 5:53 a.m.
A Maine Department of Transportation truck and driver paint a white line along the west-bound edge of Route 2 in downtown Carmel in October 2012.
A Maine Department of Transportation truck and driver paint a white line along the west-bound edge of Route 2 in downtown Carmel in October 2012.

AUGUSTA, Maine — In the final hours of the legislative session on Tuesday, Republicans found themselves in an unfamiliar position: Clamoring for the state to borrow $100 million.

To Democrats who refused to entertain the GOP’s last-minute pleas, it was the height of hypocrisy after two years of Gov. Paul LePage refusing to issue bonds previously approved by voters.

“It’s frustrating and disappointing to see Republicans pull this eleventh-hour political stunt,” said House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, in a written statement on Tuesday. “If Republicans were serious about creating jobs through bonding, where were they when Governor LePage was holding bonds hostage for more than two years?”

Eves and other Democratic leaders had been saying for weeks that they intend to negotiate a bond package with Republicans on the Appropriations Committee this summer and return in September to enact it. There was a total of more than $1.2 billion in bonds proposed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, a fraction of which have any chance of going to voters for approval. House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport — who himself proposed three bond bills — saw that as an avenue toward an irresponsible liberal spending spree.

“Democrats are proving once again that they are willing to jeopardize the passage of a jobs initiative that enjoys broad, bipartisan support just so that they can get their way on contentious spending initiatives,” said Fredette in a Tuesday morning statement. “Every Mainer knows that our roads need repairs and that our state needs jobs.”

That latter statement is backed up by the data. Maine voters haven’t rejected a transportation infrastructure bond in decades, according to data from the secretary of state’s office. Among the 16 transportation bonds sent to voters since 1987, the lowest approval tallies were 58 percent in 2008 and 2010. Even in 1991, when the state’s fiscal position was bad enough to result in a government shutdown, voters approved a $29.7 million package. It was the only bond of seven on that year’s ballot to pass.

Maria Fuentes, executive director of the Maine Better Transportation Association, said this year’s delay in putting together a bond package is unprecedented.

“The Department [of Transportation] has built their work plan around having a $100 million bond,” she said. “If you look back at the history of transportation bonds, usually the bond goes out or is decided in the first regular session. It’s risky to wait until next year for a whole host of reasons. If the department doesn’t get a bond this year then they’re going to have to cut projects.”

At issue is a $100 million bond proposed by LePage in March, which he said would attract some $154 million in federal money and other matching funds. The package proposes $46 million to rehabilitate state highways, $5 million for secondary road improvements, $30 million to replace and rehabilitate bridges and $19 million for ports, harbors, aviation, freight and passenger railroads and transit projects “that preserve public safety or otherwise have demonstrated high transportation economic value.” LePage proposed to repay the bond within 10 years, which is consistent with how Maine repays most of its general obligation bonds.

Fuentes said a failure to pass a transportation bond would result in a 35 percent cut to highway reconstruction work, a 26 percent cut to bridge work and a 50 percent cut to a matching program between the DOT and municipalities to improve local infrastructure. She said the need in some areas is dire, particularly 28 bridges that are in imminent need of rehabilitation or replacement. Those include major border bridges in Kittery, Madawaska and Lubec.

Top-priority projects that hang in the balance are located in every Maine county, from a $1.8 million project on Main Street in Lewiston to a $700,000 project on Interstate 95 in Bangor. All told, the DOT’s priority list includes more than $132 million in projects. Many of the projects funded by the bond wouldn’t be done until 2015 or 2016, but Bruce Van Note, deputy commissioner of the Department of Transportation, said planning for them has to start this year. Five million dollars in the municipal partnership program, however, would be affected long before that.

Even as he proposed the bond, LePage said he wouldn’t release $105 million in previous voter-approved bonds, which include $51.5 million for transportation, until lawmakers agreed on a plan to pay a $484 million debt to Maine hospitals that resulted from years of missed Medicaid payments. Lawmakers agreed unanimously on a plan to do that with proceeds from a renegotiated state liquor contract last month, and the LePage administration announced in early July it was working with State Treasurer Neria Douglass to prepare the previously approved bonds for sale.

Van Note said he hopes the Legislature can agree on a bond proposal by early this fall, months before the full Legislature is scheduled to return in January 2014.

“I think they understand that January is kind of too late for us to do our capital work planning,” said Van Note. “We start working on our capital work plans over the fall and in January we publish it. We’re very hopeful that the transportation bond will go to the top of the legislative agenda. What we’re hoping is that this summer or very early fall that they get together and vote out a bond package.”

Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn said Thursday that the Legislature and LePage must enact a bond package by Aug. 9 if the question is to appear on this November’s ballot. That timing accounts for a possible veto by LePage if he doesn’t agree with other provisions in whatever package is passed. Missing that deadline likely would delay a referendum until June 2014.

Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, who as chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee will lead the bond negotiations this summer, said decisions to spend tens of millions of dollars should not be rushed.

“We just want the process to be thoughtful,” she said.

Christopher Cousins is BDN State House bureau chief.

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