Maine’s method of paying for road and bridge maintenance is broken and putting the state’s transportation system “on the edge of failure,” a transportation advocacy group is asserting.

To head off bigger problems, Maine must start shifting more of the cost of transportation services to the people who use them. It must raise the gasoline tax to compensate for the increasing fuel efficiency of modern vehicles. And it should consider innovative ideas, such as turning Interstate 295 between Portland and Augusta into a toll road, operated by the Maine Turnpike Authority.

These and other concepts are contained in a report done for the Maine Better Transportation Association, which is made up of contractors, business leaders and people in the transportation industry. It was prepared earlier this fall by John Melrose, a former state transportation commissioner, as a primer for the new governor and Legislature.

Some of the solutions suggested in the report are bound to be unpopular with residents and politicians, in an era when cost-cutting and frugality are the order of the day. But the report makes a strong case that the current way of funding road and bridge maintenance is not only inadequate, but unfair.

“I think, frankly, that we’ve lost our way a bit,” Melrose said. “We don’t have a system anymore in which you pay for what you use.”

At issue is an obsolete formula in which highway maintenance is funded by a tax on the number of gallons pumped, not the number of miles driven.

That formula made sense through much of the 20th century, when the overall gas mileage of vehicles stayed fairly constant. But more fuel-efficient engines, gas-electric hybrids, and a new generation of electric cars that use no gasoline at all have blurred the relationship between gallons and miles.

In inflation-adjusted dollars, the gas tax today generates only about half the revenue it did 20 years ago, Melrose calculated. The contribution will continue to shrink as fuel economy increases.

Meanwhile, Maine has more vehicles on the road than ever, driving more miles per year. Despite the growth of alternatives such as rail, roads carry 95 percent of all passengers and 87 percent of all freight in Maine, the report noted.

“It sets the stage for a kind of ‘perfect storm’ in funding that is putting our transportation system on the edge of failure,” Melrose wrote in the report.

Federal and state taxes add 49.4 cents to every gallon of gasoline. Maine currently takes 30 cents of that for the Highway Fund. But the fund is short by $350 million a year in keeping pace with long-term maintenance, according to the report, and filling the gap would require a 50-cent-per-gallon jump in gasoline taxes.

That’s not going to happen, Melrose acknowledges. But one-third of the backlog could be fixed over the next decade if Maine increased the fuel tax by only 3 cents annually for the next four years.

For perspective, the average per-gallon cost of regular gasoline last week in Maine was $3.02, and average retail prices have risen nearly 30 cents over the past year. In mid-November, pump prices jumped 6 cents a gallon in just one week; they rose 4.5 cents in the past week. Virtually all that money leaves the state.

Despite that, two lawmakers likely to serve next year on the legislative committee that deals with transportation issues have different views about increasing the gas tax.

“Drivers absorbed that 6-cent increase in a week, and I didn’t hear anybody screaming or yelling,” said Rep. Ann Peoples, D-Westbrook.

Peoples, who served the past four years on the committee said “it’s a real easy calculus” to see that the current gas tax revenue is inadequate to maintain the highway system. But it’s harder, she said, for people to appreciate how much they spend on poor roads, such as the cost of more-frequent front-end alignments for their vehicles.

Despite the political climate, lawmakers should deal with the gas tax next year, Peoples said.

“It will come down to whether the transportation committee, and the Legislature as a whole, has the gumption to do it,” she said.

Calls for increasing the gas tax failed to gain traction last year, when Democrats were in power, according to Rep. Kimberley Rosen, R-Bucksport. Republicans feared that even a small hike, extended over years, would get out of control.

“I’m sure it will come back, but I’m also sure the Republicans will still feel the same way,” she said.

Because even a modest hike in the gas tax won’t close the maintenance gap, Maine needs to be more creative about paying for roads and bridges, and do a better job of directing money to the most heavily traveled routes, the report says.

That process already is under way at the Maine Department of Transportation, which is resetting priorities. It’s reacting to data that show 28 percent of Maine’s roads carry 80 percent of the traffic.

The department has a priority ranking meant to keep the most heavily used roads at acceptable service levels, including the Interstate system, Route 9 from Brewer to Calais, Route 2 west of Newport and Route 302 out of Portland.

Maine has enough money now to maintain these critical arteries, according to Bruce Van Note, the agency’s deputy commissioner. The bigger challenge is setting priorities for lesser-used roads that may get paved, for instance, but not qualify for reconstruction.

With money tight, Maine will need to be more creative in how it spends its transportation dollars, the report says. Costs can be reduced by seeking contracts with firms that both design and build projects such as the Sagadahoc Bridge in Bath. But broader solutions will mean that travelers will have to pay more directly for the services they use. One example is the tolls supporting the Maine Turnpike.

“We’re going to have to look at new ways of doing business,” Van Note said.

Converting Interstate 295 to a toll road between Augusta and Portland is one idea, although Van Note questions whether there’s enough traffic north of Brunswick to support it. Melrose, in an interview, suggested Interstate 395 in Bangor also could be a candidate for tolls.

Adding tolls is a concept that has been discussed in the transportation committee, Rosen said, and is expected to come up again.

Anyone who drives around the state can identify bad roads, Rosen said. In Bucksport, Route 46 has developed such a high crown, she said, that snowplow drivers are concerned about being able to clear the highway this winter.

“As soon as we get back in session, that’s the first thing we’re going to do,” Rosen said of brainstorming ideas for Maine’s looming highway crisis. “We don’t want to raise taxes, but we don’t want to ignore the fact that roads are bad and dangerous.”

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or

[email protected]