March 3, 2010

Bills aim to save paving program

SUSAN M

— By . COVER

Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — Two Republican legislators introduced proposals Thursday to find the money needed to pave state roads -- though both ideas drew resistance from transportation officials.

Rep. William Browne, R-Vassalboro, is the lead sponsor of L.D. 1641, which would direct 7.5 percent of the state's highway fund to maintenance paving.

The state has a goal of covering 600 miles of roads every year with maintenance paving, to extend the life of the roads until major work can be done. Most of the roads are in rural areas.

''I don't want to tie the (Department of Transportation's) hands, but I do want to help on setting the priorities, and this is an important priority,'' Browne testified Thursday before the Legislature's Transportation Committee.

Browne, a member of the committee, is one of several legislators who are interested in finding a way to pay for the work without raising taxes.

Last summer, the committee discussed options for raising the state's portion of the gas tax but members could not agree on a solution.

Browne's bill would provide about $45 million over two years for the projects.

An estimated $50 million is needed.

A second bill, L.D. 1501, would require surplus money in the highway fund to be dedicated to maintenance paving.

''It is imperative that we avoid an either-or situation where we must choose between increased gas taxes or letting our roads continue to decay,'' said Sen. Jonathan Courtney, R-Springvale, the bill's sponsor.

But the Department of Transportation says it needs flexibility in its budget to direct money where it is needed.

Deputy Transportation Commissioner Bruce Van Note said Browne's bill would require ''devastating cuts'' elsewhere in the budget.

He said the department has already been reduced by 231 positions over the last five years.

John Melrose of the Maine Better Transportation Association said his group also opposes both bills.

He urged legislators to review the governor's supplemental budget, which includes $18 million for maintenance paving.

He also said he believes the revenue forecast on which the projections are based may be too pessimistic.

''Our point to you is, we would prefer other alternatives,'' he said.

The committee will consider both bills during a work session scheduled for Jan. 29.

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