AUGUSTA — Recently Memorial Bridge, connecting Portsmouth, N.H., and Kittery, was abruptly closed due to numerous structural problems found during an inspection. The New Hampshire and Maine departments of transportation had hoped the bridge would be open for another year.

While many were surprised by this closure, as the former chairmen of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, we were not. Based on figures from the Legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal and Program Review, in this past legislative session transportation saw a $230 million reduction in capital investments. 

The Maine Better Transportation Association noted, “This biennium could very well go down in history as having the worst capital investment forecast in the history of the Highway Fund.” 

STATE MANDATES GO UNFULFILLED

A variety of decisions went into this reduced investment in Maine’s transportation infrastructure, particularly the LePage administration’s and the Legislature’s decision to repeal fuel tax indexing and not to bond for bridge and road repairs.

The Maine DOT is responsible for about 8,400 miles of road — twice the amount as New Hampshire, with approximately the same population. 

By Maine law, Maine DOT should be reconstructing almost 300 miles of highway every two years. Currently, there is funding for about 50 miles. 

Maine DOT should also be doing preservation paving to 700 miles of highway every two years. Currently, it has funding for less than half of that. 

The 10-year projection of Maine’s road and bridge needs puts the total cost at more than $6 billion, but projected funding is only about $3 billion. 

Of course, the state must continue to prioritize and seek efficiencies. However, if major changes are not instituted regarding transportation funding, Maine’s economy and its residents’ safety and quality of life will suffer, as we just saw with another major bridge closure.

GOP REJECTED FUNDING SOLUTIONS

Adjusted for inflation, fuel taxes paid today as a percentage of income are less than half what we paid 35 years ago, a recent study showed. 

In 1970, Americans spent $1.18 on gas taxes out of every $100 of income earned. In 2010, we spent just 46 cents on gas taxes for every $100 of income. That’s the lowest rate since the government began keeping track in 1929.

Since 2002, Maine has indexed fuel tax rates to inflation. This has been a contentious, yet necessary policy. Every two years, the Legislature weighed transportation needs against incoming revenue and voted whether or not to allow small rate increases tied to inflation – usually a fraction of a penny – to occur. 

A vote was required to continue indexing. It was never on “automatic pilot,” as has so often been claimed. Indexing was supposed to be a short-term solution aimed at slowing the erosion of the buying power of the transportation budget. Yet, with increased vehicle efficiency and construction price increases, indexing alone has been insufficient. 

Unfortunately, fuel tax indexing, combined with some regular borrowing, was the best we could do to fund our transportation responsibilities. 

This past legislative session, the Republican majority chose to repeal indexing, chose not to send transportation bonds to the voters, and put forth no other solutions to achieve stable and sustainable funding for roads, bridges and other transportation needs.

When we were the House and Senate chairmen of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, we sought out and explored a variety of possible ways we could fund transportation. 

No one likes taxes, but responsible policymakers cannot stick their heads in the sand and hope the problem goes away. Nor can they replace sound policy with sound bites. Being constantly aware how every dollar is spent is reasonable. Claiming we can fund our transportation needs by finding more “efficiencies” is not.

THE HIGH COST OF INACTION

Those who cry wolf over funding increases must remember that doing nothing is a choice that creates hidden costs to the taxpayer. Motorists pay $400 to $750 annually in damage to their vehicles due to rough roads, according to Karl Sieg of the American Society of Civil Engineers. 

When the Maine chapter of the ASCE rated Maine’s infrastructure two years ago, roads received a grade of D, and bridges received a D-plus.

Transportation touches every Mainer’s life. It is the foundation for economic growth and job creation.There isn’t one easy answer to our transportation needs. 

The solution will take political courage, the public’s demand to have a safe, efficient and comfortable system, the realization that it will cost more than we imagined, and a willingness to meet in the middle. 

 

– Special to The Press Herald