As campaign season approaches, candidates can be expected to call for new thinking on old problems.

We can expect to hear that consolidation and efficiencies will enable us to have the services we want without having to pay more. Thinking “outside the box” will save us.

While we have nothing bad to say about creativity, the reality is that there is only so much we can expect to get from innovation when it comes to state road construction and maintenance.

Our aging infrastructure is crumbling. The existing revenue stream is woefully inadequate to keep up what we have, let alone expand the road system with bypasses and other projects that local communities want.

If it weren’t for bond issues and federal stimulus money, the situation would be even more dire, but those pots of money are not bottomless.

The choices that will confront the next Legislature and governor are increasing revenues, scaling back the road system or letting it continue to deteriorate — not the kind of options that will get anyone elected in November, but something that should be at the top of the “to do” list after Election Day. The magnitude of the problem was made clear this week when the Legislature’s Transportation Committee received a report on the structural gap in the current two-year budget.

According to the committee’s analyst, lawmakers will have to come up with an additional $350 million this year and $370 million next year to complete planned road projects.

An attempt to raise the gas tax was knocked down by legislators last year, who were determined not to raise taxes to balance the budget. That is a laudable goal, and gas tax increases, which hurt rural residents more than city dwellers, are always a tough sell in a state like Maine.

But supplementing the highway fund with other broad-based revenues such as money from the general fund or bonds can’t be the entire solution, either.

Maine should determine how much of a highway system it can afford and adjust the gas tax to make sure that the people who use the system are paying their fair share for its true costs.

Once we get there, we will be in a better position to look for creative alternatives for the future.


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