AUGUSTA — Maine lawmakers are considering a raft of ideas to pay for long-neglected road and bridge repairs, ranging from increasing the gasoline tax to imposing a surcharge on electric and hybrid vehicles.

The problem, which Maine shares with the rest of the country, is that modern fuel-efficient vehicles – especially electric and hybrid cars – are using less gas and driving down revenue from the gas tax. And that decline is contributing to crumbling rural roads in Maine, which was rated Tuesday among the 10 states that have the worst bridges and rural roads in the country.

On Tuesday, the Legislature’s Transportation Committee weighed funding alternatives that include repealing the state’s gas tax and replacing it with a flat road tax, surcharges on electric and hybrid vehicles, and a seasonal gas tax designed to extract more revenue from summer tourists.

Gov. Paul LePage also made note of the dilemma during a news conference held at the State House last week. The governor noted that fuel-efficient and hybrid vehicles have produced a steady decline in gas tax collections.

“A lot of people are getting freebies,” he said. “Do you go with a gas tax or do you go with a road tax? I don’t know.”

About 61 percent of Maine’s Highway Fund is derived from the gas tax. Those collections have fallen steadily from a 24-year peak in 2006. Since 2011, money spent on roads and bridges has fallen commensurate with the declining revenues. In the meantime, projects lined up in the state’s capital improvement plan have languished as the transportation agency struggles to maintain the existing infrastructure.


The Legislature is expected to adopt a largely status quo transportation budget of $627 million for the next two years. The budget includes $73.2 million for improvements in highways and bridges, but none for the projects identified by the Maine Department of Transportation’s capital plan.

Although LePage has applauded his agency’s efforts to stretch limited dollars, independent surveys assessing Maine’s road infrastructure continue to deliver bad news.

On Tuesday, the national research group TRIP released a report that described Maine’s bridges and rural roads as among the worst in the nation. TRIP, which promotes policies that reduce traffic congestion, said 26 percent of Maine’s rural roads have pavement that is in poor condition, and that only seven other states have roads that are worse.

The report also found that 15 percent of the state’s rural bridges are structurally deficient. Only eight other states have a higher percent of deficient bridges, according to the report.

Maine’s standing in both categories is unchanged from a year ago.

Rural roads, highways and bridges are funded by a combination of local, state and federal governments. Federal funds for highway and transit improvements are largely generated through an 18.4 cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline and a 24.4 cents-per-gallon tax on diesel fuel.


According to TRIP, “a significant boost in investment” is needed to improve the nation’s highways, roads and bridges. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials recommended increasing the federal funding from $88 billion to $120 billion. The association said the current backlog in projects totals $740 billion.

Political gridlock has erected daunting barriers to a long-term funding solution in Congress. Federal lawmakers have openly lamented the condition of the nation’s transportation infrastructure, but little has been done to correct it. The current federal highway budget is due to expire at the end of the month, although the House passed a two-month extension Tuesday and the Senate is expected to vote on it later this week.

The federal gas tax has been the same since October 1993. Raising it is considered a political liability for lawmakers in both parties. Additionally, policymakers have been unable to coalesce behind alternative funding solutions.

The situation is not much different in Maine. Collections from the state’s 30-cent gas tax have fallen with the increased prevalence of fuel-efficient vehicles. However, the state’s revenue predicament is also partially self-inflicted.

In 2011, LePage signed the Republican-controlled Legislature’s bill halting the state’s indexing of the gas tax to adjust for inflation. Republicans reasoned that Maine’s gas tax, currently third-highest in New England, was already too high.

Some Maine lawmakers are open to restoring the inflation indexing for the gas tax, but there are those who wonder if the primary funding mechanism for Maine’s road and bridges is due for an overhaul.


Rep. Andrew McLean, D-Gorham, is the lead sponsor of L.D. 1110. The proposal is a concept draft, meaning it doesn’t recommend a specific funding mechanism for the Highway Fund. However, McLean told lawmakers on the Transportation Committee during an April 28 public hearing that “the way we fund our transportation projects is at a crossroads.” He noted that according to a briefing from Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt, the money collected from the gas tax can fund the engineering and design of road and bridge projects, but not actual construction.

“Think about it,” McLean said. “Unless we come up with a bond or some other manipulation of Highway Fund dollars, we don’t have a penny to spend on a road or a bridge. Nothing. Imagine what will happen to the (MDOT) work plan if we don’t have any money to build a bridge or road.”

For now, state lawmakers have been unable to overcome their ambivalence. On Tuesday, lawmakers on the Transportation Committee moved to carry over McLean’s bill to next year. They unanimously voted to accept a different bill, L.D. 706, which creates a commission to study how the state should fund its transportation infrastructure.

McLean remained hopeful the commission would develop a strategy that’s “economically and politically feasible.”

“There are a lot of solutions out there,” he said, adding that a lack of political courage in Washington, D.C., had forced states to act.

LePage, meanwhile, has resorted to proposing state borrowing projects to fund the transportation infrastructure. He has asked state lawmakers to approve L.D. 1415, a $175 million bond measure that would need the approval of voters if it clears the Legislature.


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