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This year, like the past five years, Maine voters will be asked to approve a substantial transportation bond of about $100 million. And like last year, the proposal before voters in July, Question 2, is a $105 million bond. It would be used to match about $275 million from the federal government and other sources.
As they have consistently in the past, voters should approve the bond to support much-needed road, bridge, port and other transportation projects and maintenance across the state. Now is not the time to let the foot off the gas in terms of supporting an already beleaguered transportation infrastructure that faces a continued funding shortfall.
That annual shortfall was already over $230 million before the COVID-19 pandemic, and that is assuming voters pass an annual $100 million bond. That shortfall has only been worsened with a reduction in traffic also meaning a reduction in revenue from the gas tax, the primary source of revenue for Maine’s highway fund.
According to Maine Transportation Commissioner Bruce Van Note, that additional loss in revenue will cause an additional $80 million shortfall. He said some transportation projects will need to be cut if this year’s bond fails. It shouldn’t.
At the same time, it’s also long overdue for legislators and other state leaders to find the collaboration, creativity and political will necessary to restructure how we pay for this infrastructure. Bonding is often a sensible way to take care of long-term capital projects, but relying each year on $100 million approved by voters for routine maintenance is not a sustainable approach.
This is no great revelation. The Legislature created a blue ribbon commission made up of legislators and other state officials for the purpose of studying and recommending potential transportation funding solutions. After several meetings and discouraging indications that the group might not even finish its work this year, it did produce a final report in March.
That report unanimously called for the “immediate infusion” of $20 million to $60 million of additional revenue to the Maine Department of Transportation, “long-term, sustainable funding solutions” to be considered during the next Legislature, and stressed that the ultimate solution should be made up of both funding from the state’s General Fund and new revenue specifically for transportation and should generate at least $160 million each year.
We’ve long agreed with that general, balanced approach. But it’s very disappointing not to see specific recommendations from the commission about how to achieve that balance.
While the report notes that discussions about new revenue focused on a fuel tax increase of less than 9 cents per gallon, there was no specific gas tax recommendation.
The report didn’t explicitly say this, but we will continue to do so: the new revenue has to include raising the state’s fuel tax. Raising taxes is never a political winner, particularly in an election year, but it’s clear that it was a mistake to de-index Maine’s gas tax in 2011, and that people using Maine’s roads need to contribute more to their maintenance.
A balanced approach has always been the way forward in addressing Maine’s transportation funding needs.That has never really been in doubt. The question is whether state leaders will continue to let politically inconvenient realities get in the way of making the hard but necessary decisions about what that balanced approach looks like.
The absence of immediate, concrete solutions from Augusta remains disappointing. In the meantime, the need for Maine voters to continue to support transportation infrastructure bonds is undeniable.