The federal fuel tax, which helps fund road maintenance and transportation infrastructure, has not been increased for nearly 25 years. As a result, states have become increasingly responsible for these repairs, leaving some roads and bridges in such disrepair that they are too dangerous to use.
Clearly, more money is needed for transportation projects. But, few lawmakers dare to suggest raising the fuel tax, fearing a backlash from drivers and transportation industry officials.
President Donald Trump was not afraid to break that taboo earlier this month, when he suggested he would be willing to consider increasing the federal fuel tax. We hope he means it.
The federal fuel tax, 18.4 cents per gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel, was last raised in 1993.
As a result, highway funding has fallen far short of what is needed. Adjusted for inflation, revenue from the gas tax peaked in 1994, according to analysis by the Brookings Institution. Federal funding for transportation and water infrastructure dropped by 23 percent from 2003 to 2014, forcing states to increase their spending on transportation and water infrastructure, the Congressional Budget Office found in a 2015 report.
The gas tax problem is not just a federal one.
Like the federal fund, Maine’s highway fund gets most of its money from fuel taxes. The state’s tax on gasoline today is 30 cents per gallon. The tax rate was adjusted annually for inflation until 2011, when indexing was repealed. Now, like the federal tax, it is not keeping pace with transportation needs. The gas tax shortfall is exacerbated by an overall increase in fuel economy among U.S. vehicles and the fact that Americans are driving less.
Nationally, there is an $836 billion backlog of highway and bridge work, according to this year’s report from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Deficient roads cost Mainers $1 billion per year in vehicle repairs, congestion-related delays and traffic accidents, TRIP, a national transportation group, calculated.
In Maine, combined state and federal funding falls short of meeting transportation goals set in state statute by $59 million per year. This figure from the Maine Department of Transportation underestimates the shortfall because the department includes in its tally an expected $100 million per year from bonds, money that is far from assured. More than 19 percent of the state’s bridges are functionally obsolete, and 18 percent of state highway miles are rated poor or unacceptable.
These aren’t just numbers in a report.
After inspections revealed deterioration in its cables, the Waldo-Hancock Bridge, which crossed the Penobscot River near Bucksport, was closed to heavy truck traffic in 2003, forcing a long and expensive detour through Bangor.
All of this points to the need for a new way to fund highway and other transportation infrastructure needs.
Rep. Andrew McLean, D-Gorham and the House chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, has introduced several bills to increase funding for transportation work. One, LD 1149, takes a comprehensive approach by calling for a 7 cent per gallon fuel tax increase, a $200 surcharge on hybrid and electric vehicle registrations, a $3 increase in many motor vehicle-related charges at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. The legislation would also devote 10 percent of the sales tax on transportation-related items to the Highway Fund.
Another McLean bill, LD 1150, sought to study the potential for using a miles-traveled fee system as an alternative to the gas tax. Oregon is testing such a system. A Congressional Budget Office study found that vehicle-miles traveled fees are less onerous on low-income and rural households than fuel taxes because these households tend to own older, less fuel-efficient vehicles.
He has revised the bill to create a group to examine all potential funding sources. McLean envisions numerous meetings with the public to build awareness of the transportation funding shortfall and to hear how the public believes infrastructure work should be paid for.
This is an important, if overdue, discussion to highlight the challenges of maintaining Maine’s infrastructure with insufficient resources and to mobilize support for a better funding system.