As former Democratic and Republican chairmen of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, we ask Gov. LePage and the newly sworn-in members of the 127th Legislature to make Maine’s transportation infrastructure a priority.

Maine’s roads and bridges rank among the worst in the country; more than 50 percent of the road network hasn’t been properly maintained since the 1950s, and we have one of the higher percentages of “deficient or functionally obsolete” bridges of any state in the U.S.

These deficits in our transportation network put drivers at risk, cost each motorist nearly $300 apiece annually in unnecessary repairs and hinder our state’s economic growth.

There are many solutions to the issue, but few make it through the partisan world of Augusta and Washington. The facts are clear:

 Vehicles are becoming much more fuel efficient, and as a result, receipts into the state Highway Fund have been declining – in real dollars – for years.

 Funding generated by the fuel tax has not kept up with inflation. Since the fuel tax is tied to gallons purchased, and not variable costs, the revenues don’t rise as costs increase.

 With fuel standards slated to rise dramatically, and millennials driving less, we can expect things to get even worse.

We applaud the Maine Department of Transportation for maximizing efficiencies, cutting costs and stretching its budget over the past 10 to 15 years. The department uses its scarce resources wisely and has low administrative costs.

However, efficiency alone cannot get us out of the hole we find ourselves in. Given this, we believe that it is time for the Legislature and the governor to step up and make transportation a higher priority.

The challenges we face are certainly not unique to Maine. Almost every state is facing shortfalls in its transportation budget, and while the federal government was a major partner since the interstate system was built, its support has declined. Why? Because Congress hasn’t raised the one federal means of funding transportation – the federal fuel tax – since 1993. That’s right – the last increase in funding for the Highway Trust Fund was over 20 years ago. And it shows.

Thanks to our congressional delegation, particularly senior U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, the state has received more than its fair share of competitive TIGER grants from the U.S. DOT. But more is needed. Leadership and compromise are needed.

Thirty years ago, our country’s transportation infrastructure was ranked No. 1 in the world. Today, we are ranked 16th. In a rural state like Maine, citizens and businesses alike depend on roads and bridges to ship goods to market, commute to jobs and get kids safely to school.

Maine is facing a deficit of $150 million per year to maintain and upgrade the system we currently have. We have many river crossings, but many of those bridges are reaching the end of their useful life, and need an influx of funds.

Fully 15 percent (355) of state-maintained bridges are structurally deficient, while another 18 percent (430) are functionally obsolete. The average bridge in Maine is fully eight years older than the national average (49 versus 41 years).

When we were in the Legislature, we both supported a four-year, $160 million bridge program to help get some bridges the additional funding they desperately needed. That money has been gone for over two years now. It is time to find more money for bridges.

In addition to bridges, our roads need a lot of work. Some of the repair costs are staggering. If we fail to make needed improvements now, the fixes will cost more later.

Our dependence on the fuel tax is shortsighted. Because of declining revenues and partisan debates over borrowing, the Maine DOT has annual budget shortfalls, which result in more road and bridge deterioration and higher repair costs. Fuel tax indexing has been repealed, leaving fewer strategies for raising revenue.

There is an argument to have the General Fund help pay more for highway costs, since the transportation sector contributes many tens of millions of dollars to the General Fund. One way to do this would be to have a portion of the current sales tax – perhaps those generated by the transportation industry – help pay for roads and bridges.

We are asking policymakers to view funding for transportation more broadly, thus funding it accordingly. With interest rates and construction costs at all-time lows, we can not only fix our roads, bridges and transportation network but also revive our economy. The Federal Highway Administration estimates that over 35,000 jobs are created for every $1 billion invested.

— Special to the Press Herald