OLD ORCHARD BEACH –  In Maine, “you can’t get there from here” is an oft-repeated phrase that reminds us how hard it is to get around our coastal and rural state. The old saying is part of Maine lore, but the truth is Maine’s geography is a huge challenge for our state’s economic development.

Safe roads and a strong transportation network are the backbone of a good economy and will be critical for growing jobs in our state. Unfortunately, Gov. LePage and Republican lawmakers refused to invest in improving our roads this year and eliminated the funding stream for road improvements in the budget.

As a veteran member of the Transportation Committee and a four-term legislator, I’ve never seen such short-sighted infrastructure policy, especially for the rural parts of our state where roads so desperately need repair. While Democrats did ultimately vote to support the current budget in order to ensure working people kept their jobs, we repeatedly issued warnings against the backward policy.

BUDGET CUTS’ IMPACT

The highway budget that passed in June contains $230 million less than the previous budget for capital improvements to highways and bridges. With no bond package and the elimination of the gas indexing tax, Republicans have undercut our ability to fix our roads, improve our state’s transportation system, stopped immediate job creation. Worse, they’ve stifled future economic development in our state.

According to the Maine Better Transportation Association (MBTA), the cuts in spending in the coming biennium mean Maine will reconstruct only 60-some miles out of its network of more than 8,500 miles of state roads. At that rate, we are expecting those roads to last 280 years before we get a chance to fix them again.

The lack of funding is bad for business, especially in rural Maine where our roads and bridges are already in rough shape compared to those in other parts of the country. The problem has now been compounded by lack of sufficient state and federal funds to keep up repairs.

TRIP, a national nonprofit agency that conducts research and tracks transportation issues across the country, released a report last month that examines roads and bridges throughout rural America.

Maine was ranked 14th from the bottom for rural road conditions and 12th from the bottom for bridge conditions.

According to TRIP, 19 percent of the state’s rural roads and 15 percent of all bridges were deemed deficient. An additional 36 percent of Maine’s major rural roads were rated mediocre or fair, and an additional 15 percent of the state’s rural bridges were functionally obsolete.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, our roads have seen even worse damage.

This is not just a challenge for economic development, but it is a major safety risk. Of the 159 traffic-related fatalities that occurred in Maine in 2009, 137 were on rural, non-interstate roads, according to the report. Inadequate roadway safety design, longer emergency vehicle response times and the higher speeds traveled on rural roads are all factors that led to the higher traffic fatality rates.

The elimination of indexing for the gas tax means the Highway Fund will be short $5 million in the next biennium. Over the past nine years, if fuel taxing had not been in effect the Highway Fund would have lost $341 million in revenues.

MONEY NOT THERE

Now, that money won’t be there to maintain the roads and bridges that Maine businesses rely on to move their products or make it possible for people to travel to work.

We index the fuel tax to keep up with increasing costs of materials to fix the roads.

Indexing accounts for that by annually increasing the fuel tax to match the inflation rate. In most cases, if there has been an increase, it has been less than a penny, often one-or-two tenths of a cent.

Worse, Republicans refused to consider a responsible bond package or even a federally backed bond package, which would have helped improve our bridges, roads, ports, and would have created jobs immediately.

The condition of roads should be a wake up call for lawmakers next year. It is crucial that we discuss passing a responsible bond package during the next legislative session or we will truly be putting up road blocks to our economic development.

– Special to the Telegram