GORHAM — While the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee has been busy putting together the biennial state General Fund budget, another equally important budget – but one that gets far less attention – has been taking shape amid growing challenges.

Every two years, the Transportation Committee develops the Highway Fund budget. This $1 billion budget is the money from state and federal sources dedicated to road and bridge replacement and investments in our airports, seaports and rail lines. As required by the Maine Constitution, highway funds are kept separate and can be used only for these transportation-related purposes.

Writing the Highway Fund budget grows more challenging each two-year cycle because we have fewer and fewer dollars to invest in our roads and bridges. Anyone who drives on Maine roads knows the rough shape they are in. The condition of our infrastructure is a result of the chronic underfunding of our transportation system.

The Highway Fund relies on fuel taxes for roughly two-thirds of its revenue. Revenue from the tax drops as new vehicles use less fuel to meet federal fuel-efficiency standards.

While good news for the environment, this makes it more difficult for the state to fund necessary infrastructure projects. As fuel-efficiency standards continue to go up, we will continue to see a decline in revenue.

With Washington’s dysfunction, we can’t rely on Congress to fix the problem. It is up to the states to find a funding solution that allows us to invest adequately and reliably in our infrastructure.

Maintaining our transportation infrastructure is an expensive endeavor, but it’s critical to the success of our economy. Recognizing that, Democrats and Republicans on the Transportation Committee have been working together for many weeks on the Highway Fund budget, identifying the most urgent investments and looking for ways to more efficiently and effectively allocate the resources we do have to those projects.

While we have found funding for many important and significant investments in our infrastructure, it still falls far short of what Maine needs.

Maine is a big state with relatively few people spread out all over it. Compared to New Hampshire, which has about the same population, Maine has roughly twice the roads and bridges to take care of. This space and lack of density are part of what makes Maine great, but they also present transportation funding challenges.

According to the Maine Department of Transportation’s latest work plan – which many believe are bare-bones plans that rely too much on “skinny-mix” paving – our highway and bridge system requires an additional $150 million every year just to keep up with basic maintenance.

Experienced MaineDOT engineers released a report earlier this year that found bridge funding is half what it needs to be – a shortfall of $70 million annually – just to maintain the safety and integrity of state bridges. This is basic “gotta do” work, not wish lists.

Efficiency, prioritization and accountability are part of the answer, but those pieces are largely tapped out.

In recent years, MaineDOT has focused on its core mission and reduced its workforce by about 20 percent – more than 400 positions – to stave off significant cuts in projects. The number of maintenance regions was cut from seven to five, plow routes were reconfigured, the fleet reduced, work classifications made more flexible and the on-time project delivery rate increased to 90 percent.

Simply put, MaineDOT uses its funds well. We cannot cut our way to a safe and reliable highway, bridge and transportation system.

Now is the time for a conversation about how we fund the needed investments in our infrastructure – and to find the political courage to pursue the changes we need to make.

One of the measures I’ve sponsored this session, L.D. 706, would bring lawmakers and stakeholders together as part of a commission to identify transportation funding reform options that can be implemented next year. The good news is this bill has received the unanimous support of the Transportation Committee and is working its way through the Legislature with strong bipartisan support and the backing of local officials, private businesses and a range of organizations.

If there is one thing we can agree on in Augusta, it should be that adequate investment in our roads and bridges is imperative to the safety and economic well-being of all Maine residents.

This is a basic function of government, and we’re falling short. Every Mainer who drives to work knows this. Washington can’t solve this. We can and must. We owe it to the people of Maine.