SOUTH PORTLAND – Maine’s governor is outspoken about government policies causing Mainers’ taxes and expenses to outpace those in other states. 

Consistent with that reasoning, the governor and Legislature must take a hard look at Maine’s transportation policy and how it results in Maine residents spending an unnecessarily large portion of income on automobiles and roadways.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Census indicate that the average annual cost of owning and operating a car in the U.S. amounts to $6,900 per resident. The cost to build and maintain roads adds another $600 of annual cost per person. Annual costs of the American car and asphalt lifestyle total in excess of $7,500 per U.S. resident — man, woman and child.

The cost of cars and highways is even higher in Maine. Mainers drive more than the American average, and Maine supports considerably more miles of road per tax-paying resident, yet we have less income to pay for these costs.

Unless Mainers want to continue accepting this unsustainable transportation cost, we need to push our leaders to produce different solutions so Mainers can live well without a 21 percent transportation cost burden.

Public interest groups, journalists, our governor and the Legislature’s Transportation Committee should:

Examine this very expensive transportation problem objectively and free of the highway construction interests that currently dominate transportation policy.

Examine who really calls the shots in Augusta with respect to transportation spending, and assess whether that decision-making is working in the best interests of the residents who pay for it.

Redirect Maine’s transportation investments toward transit technologies that give Mainers the freedom to live comfortably and safely without car expenses.

Make use of state-owned rail corridors — infrastructure that may be less expensive to operate than roads in some populated areas.

Enable residences, jobs and commercial facilities to evolve in town centers where people can walk and use transit for their needs — a lifestyle that is rapidly rising in popularity.

Look at the numbers: According to Federal Highway Administration data, vehicle mileage driven annually per person in Maine is 14 percent higher than the U.S. average, 12 percent higher than in New Hampshire, 32 percent higher than in Massachusetts, 25 percent higher than in California, and even 18 percent higher than in Texas.

To make matters worse, 80 percent of Americans are supporting less road mileage in their states than is the case for Mainers. The U.S. as a whole supports 29 lane-miles of roads and highways per 1,000 people, yet Maine supports 35 lane-miles per 1,000 people. Maine has to pay for 21 percent more roads per resident than the national average. 

Compared to other states in our region, Maine’s highway cost burden is more dramatic. Massachusetts and New York taxpayers support only 12 lane-miles per 1,000 residents; in Connecticut, the number is 13. Even in New Hampshire, the figure is a comparatively low 25.

Again, in Maine the number is 35, so the average Maine resident supports nearly three times as many road miles as a Massachusetts resident, yet Mainers have considerably less income to spend.

What this adds up to is that the cost of building, buying, maintaining and operating passenger cars and trucks, roads and highways in Maine amounts to 21 percent of Mainers’ total personal income. Taxpayers can no longer afford this, it makes Maine uncompetitive as a place to live and work and Maine residents increasingly want options to car dependency.

Highway construction interests frequently respond by claiming that highway construction and maintenance are paid for by gas taxes that the public willingly pays at the pump. 

At one time this may have been true, but currently only 52 percent of the money spent on America’s highway construction and maintenance nationwide comes from gas and vehicle taxes or tolls, according to the Highway Administration. Nearly half comes from general fund income taxes, sales taxes and property taxes.

Federal dollars are not readily available to bail Maine out of this car/highway cost burden. After a $14.7 billion infusion of non-gas-tax taxpayer money in April 2010, the U.S. Highway Trust Fund balance has been sliding continuously downward — down 40 percent since 2010, the Highway Administration reports.

Highway and car dependency costs that amount to 21 percent of Maine’s personal income constitute an unsustainable transportation policy. We are smart enough to do better.

Mobilize the political process to design the necessary changes — regardless of what the construction lobbyists currently prefer to build.

Gary Higginbottom is an energy, sales and economic development consultant who lives and works in South Portland.