AUGUSTA, Maine — The condition of the state’s roads has reached a point where a highway lobby is running a contest: What’s the worst road in Maine?
The Maine Better Transportation Association set up a website that will announce the winners based on photos and stories on collapsed bridges, failed culverts and gaping potholes. Last year’s winner sent in a picture and story that told of a bent wheel rim, ruined tire, lost wheel bearing and $1,000 repair bill from a pothole on western Maine’s Route 219.
Angry drivers and highway maintenance advocates aren’t the only ones raising their voices. And legislators in Augusta are warning that the day of reckoning is just up the road.
Earlier this year, they held off on sending a transportation bond issue to voters, in response to concerns by Republican leaders that the state is getting too deeply in long-term debt and needs a breather. Following Gov. Paul LePage’s wishes, lawmakers also abandoned automatic increases in fuel taxes, or indexing, a policy that had been in place for years to get around biennial squabbles over gas tax increases.
Lawmakers and highway maintenance advocates have been warning that the state faces serious transportation funding shortfalls given long-term infrastructure needs and a declining revenue base from the fuel tax, which is being eroded as vehicles become increasingly efficient and require less fuel.
Maine will spend $230 million less on capital improvements to its highways and bridges in the current two-year budget cycle than during the previous cycle, said MBTA President Randy Mace. That’s despite poor pavement on 26 percent of Maine’s highways, and 34 percent of its bridges having been labeled as deficient, compared with a national average of 25 percent, according to the MBTA.
And Maine is falling behind on highway and bridge needs, according to The Road Information Program, a transportation organization based in Washington. It says that at current funding levels, many needed highway projects will not proceed, pavement conditions on major roads will worsen and more miles of Maine will be restricted to lighter vehicles.
Maine has the nation’s 14th-worst rural roads and 12th-worst rural bridges, said TRIP’s latest report, released this month.
The loss of fuel tax indexing drains away more than $5 million per year, money that will have to be made up somehow, Rep. Edward Mazurek of Rockland, lead Democrat on the Transportation Committee, said this year as a $637 million two-year highway bill was passed.
And highways are getting less money from both the federal government and state general fund, said Rep. George Hogan, D-Old Orchard Beach, who also serves on the Transportation Committee.
“The major problem we have in transportation is sustainable funding,” he said.