November 7, 2012

Maine Voices: Anti-tax policy makes road ahead much rougher – literally

Reining in the levy on gas cuts into roadwork funds, affecting businesses, cyclists and commuters.

By CHRIS BRADLEY Special to the Press Herald

YARMOUTH - I don't like paying taxes any more than you do, but I do think that safe roads are a good use of my tax dollars.

To get an idea of how Augusta's tax-cutting policy will affect the future of Maine's transportation infrastructure, take a look at the repaving work done this summer on Route 115 in North Yarmouth and Route 9 in Cumberland.

To save approximately $6,500 per mile, the new asphalt on these roads was applied to meet the minimum specification -- a reversal of previous practice that allowed highly trafficked roads to be a little wider than the minimum.

The edge of the new pavement is typically 6 inches to a foot short of the old edge. I ride my bicycle on the roads of southern and central Maine, so this new policy is pretty obvious to me and anyone else trying to ride on the side of the road and stay out of traffic.

What caused the change in policy for the Maine Department of Transportation? It is making do in a rural state where the cost of materials and labor keeps going up faster than gas tax revenue.

Maine DOT revenue comes from a per-gallon tax on gasoline. Rather than a tax on the cost of gas, it is a tax on the gallons used, and it can't keep-up with infrastructure costs because cars are more efficient, people are driving less and legislators live in fear of being labeled "tax and spend."

The federal gas tax is 18.4 cents a gallon and hasn't been raised since 1993. The Maine gas tax is 49.9 cents, and until recently it was indexed to the Consumer Price Index. Last year, the Republican-controlled Legislature removed the index -- something Republicans had wanted to do for years.

Without an index to raise taxes at the same rate as inflation, the Legislature must now vote to increase the gas tax. This appeals to Republicans because it will provide endless opportunities to label Democrats as "tax and spend" whenever they vote to raise the gas tax.

Chances are that many future votes to increase the tax will fail, Maine DOT revenue will not keep up with inflation, and they will continue to fall behind repairing our crumbling roads and tired bridges.

I am sure that the new paving policy seems adequate to many people. And perhaps it is adequate, if you don't have to pass a bicyclist or try to ride your bike on the edge of a busy road. The old cracked and broken pavement, along with the tire-grabbing seam where the new asphalt ends, will force cyclists to ride farther into traffic.

If you found bicyclists annoying before, just wait until this new policy spreads to your commuter route. With the new limits on Maine DOT revenue, you're looking at the future.

I have more than 100 employees and three locations in Maine. The goose and duck down we use to make pillows and comforters in our Yarmouth factory travels by road, as do the orders we ship from our Portland warehouse.

A safe and efficient highway infrastructure is one of the fundamental investments that state and federal governments make to support jobs, so why is Maine taking a step backward?

More people are walking, running and biking on our roads, and this is a good thing. Lawmakers across the country are investing in anything they can think of that will help fight obesity. But here in Maine we're taking steps to make bicycling less safe -- seems to me like a very obvious step backward, and a symptom of the problems caused by pledging to never raise taxes.

As I said, I don't like paying taxes any more than you do, but tax cuts have become the new religion for too many politicians and voters. Reality is more complex. The reality is that some things are actually best done by government, and a tax that reflects how much an individual is using our roads is good policy.

If you agree that safe roads and bridges make Maine a better place to live, be sure to tell your state representative and senator that you want them to ensure that Maine DOT revenue stays ahead of inflation.

 

Chris Bradley is president of Cuddledown Inc. and a resident of Yarmouth.

 

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