AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine voters will soon have the chance to borrow millions of dollars to fund two infrastructure systems that have been stressed by the coronavirus pandemic.
A $105 million transportation bond will be on the July 14 ballot as Question 2 alongside Question 1, a $15 million bond for broadband expansion in unserved and underserved areas. Long-term solutions have been elusive under Gov. Janet Mills and her predecessors and were further delayed when the Legislature adjourned due to the virus in March.
The pandemic has hammered the gas tax, the state’s key source of revenue for road and bridge funding. The surge in Mainers who have had to work and learn from home has raised attention to internet speeds that are the fifth-slowest among all 50 states, according to Broadband Now.
Voters have approved similar transportation bonds for the last five years. The Maine Department of Transportation counts on that funding in annual work plans, but it will matter now as much as ever due to the pandemic. The bond would be matched by $275 million in federal and other funds.
The road and bridge system was already facing an annual shortfall of $232 million before the virus struck. Dipping gas tax revenues caused by a reduction in traffic will cause a shortfall of $80 million more on top of that, Transportation Commissioner Bruce Van Note said Friday.
Bonds are typically used the year after they are approved, but the timing of the July election means the money could be used to cover that projected shortfall, Van Note said. The department will have to cut some projects if it fails, he said, though that is unlikely since Maine voters have never rejected a similar question.
Using the bond money sooner means the state will have to find another revenue stream next year. Reducing reliance on borrowing was one of the bipartisan goals of a commission convened by Mills last year. Earlier this year, it was set to punt the politically thorny issue to the Legislature after Republicans stood against a gas tax increase generally backed by Democrats.
Additional broadband funding was one of the main items that legislative Democrats have pushed for since Mills’ 2018 election. But Republicans blocked a borrowing proposal while the Legislature adjourned that year. They acceded to the one on the July ballot, but other measures aiming to direct millions to broadband were left on the table this year.
It has become critical as most businesses and public schools moved to remote operations. The state purchased almost 22,000 devices to help students who reported a need in May. But high-speed internet is expensive. The head of Maine’s broadband agency has said community buy-in is needed if Maine is to connect 95 percent of the state, one of its main goals.
Getting that buy-in from many cities and towns is still challenging, ConnectME Authority Executive Director Peggy Schaffer told the Consensus Economic Forecasting Commission on Tuesday, although the stress the system is experiencing in much of the state may change that.
“Now because everybody is home — because the two parents are home, because the kids are home, they’re no longer just watching Netflix,” she said. “They’re now home during the day and they’re trying to upload stuff during the day, and it’s not working.”