More than one-third of the funding for state highway construction projects and one-quarter of funding for bridge projects approved for 2014 and 2015 could be in jeopardy if lawmakers fail to move forward a $100 million bond proposal.
Bruce Van Note, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Transportation, said officials have been in touch recently with Democratic and Republican leaders about the need for bond funding, but uncertainty remains.
“They understand we need this because it’s tied to our budget, and I believe they will do something, but the timing is important,” Van Note said.
Both parties agree that a transportation bond is crucial. However, as was the case during the past legislative session, there is discord about how to proceed.
Democrats appear to want to include transportation funding as part of a larger bond package that also would include money for research and development and for natural resources.
Senate President Justin Alfond and House Speaker Mark Eves announced this week that they have directed the Appropriations Committee to spend the summer debating the roughly two dozen bond proposals on the table and turn them into one package. That package could then be voted on during a special session this fall in advance of the November election. All state bonds require voter approval.
Republicans, including Gov. Paul LePage, want to deal with bonds separately.
“The governor has put together a strong targeted transportation bond that focuses on jobs and the economy, and House Republicans would be supportive of that as a standalone bill,” said House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette. “If Democrats attempt to lump together the bonds into one package, I don’t think Republicans in the House will go for it. We’re not in a spending mood.”
Now that the state budget and most other policy issues have been settled by the 126th Legislature, the rhetoric is starting to heat up over bonds.
Earlier this week, Alfond accused the governor of holding up bonds that already have been approved by voters.
“People’s jobs are on the line, our roads are crumbling. Our economy cannot wait any longer for this economic shot in the arm,” he said in a written statement. “The governor should do what he said he was going to do and follow the will of the people by releasing the bonds.”
LePage responded with a statement reminding the Democratic leaders that he instructed state Treasurer Neria Douglass on May 23 to prepare the approved bonds.
“It’s laughable that Senator Alfond is trying to shift the blame when it took him nearly six months to pay Maine’s hospital debt,” LePage said in a written statement. “He now claims that he is waiting to craft a strategic bond package. But that’s just another delaying tactic. Democrats have no strategic plan.”
Van Note said MDOT is supportive of the governor’s transportation bond, but he said it’s more important to have that money one way or the other. Without it, his staff would have to choose from a list of 64 road projects and 58 bridge projects to defund.
More specifically, they would need to cut 26 percent, or $30 million, from the $115 million set aside for bridge projects, and 35 percent, or $46 million, from the $132 million earmarked for highway reconstruction and rehabilitation.
The projects range in size from a $14 million reconstruction of Route 3 on Mount Desert Island, to an $8.7 million bridge replacement project in Bangor, to a $50,000 intersection improvement at Broadway and Waterman Drive in South Portland.
“They would not all be cut, obviously, but this is the pallet we have to choose from,” Van Note said. “We’ll make decisions on a priority basis the way we always do.”
Additionally, if a bond is not passed, MDOT would need to cut $5 million from its municipal partnership initiative that provides state funding for municipal projects.
The remaining funds, about $19 million, that could be cut are set aside for multi-modal improvements, such as recent efforts to bring shipping back to the International Marine Terminal in Portland and to improve rails.
Maria Fuentes, executive director of the Maine Better Transportation Association, is among those calling for lawmakers to put politics aside to approve a transportation bond. She said the issue should be about jobs. The $100 million bond would support about 2,800 jobs, Fuentes estimated.
“There is so much deferred maintenance already, any more delays could make that backlog even longer,” she said. “We think transportation is a pretty bread-and-butter issue. Most people in Maine depend on some road or bridge every day.”
Historically, support among Mainers for transportation-related bonds has been strong. Voters have approved the last 16 transportation bond referendums dating back to 1987, and half of those have received more than 70 percent support. The lowest amount of support was 58 percent for a $29.7 million bond in 2008 that includes about $6 million for natural resources.
That’s probably the reason why Democrats are trying to create a package that includes transportation funding — to generate enough public support for other elements of a potential bond package.
Fredette said the Democrats’ position on bonds is just the latest example of “them using the process to embarrass Republicans or embarrass the governor.”
“It’s just like trying to link Medicaid expansion to the governor’s hospital repayment bill,” he said.
Ericka Dodge, spokeswoman for Alfond, the Senate president, said the intention of the Democratic-led Legislature is to come back in September or October to vote on a bond package to send out to voters. They may not have the final say, though. Bonds require two-thirds support of the Legislature, which means any bills would need bipartisan support.
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: