Legislators in Washington are scrambling to complete work on a five-year, $305 billion transportation bill that would slightly increase funding for Maine highway and transit projects, the first bump in federal funding in four years.

One early estimate by a transportation think tank estimates that Maine would receive successive increases during the life of the bill, starting with a $9 million increase in the first year to $187 million, followed by roughly $4 million more in each successive year, eventually increasing to $204.4 million by budget year 2020, according to the Eno Center for Transportation.

“The big question mark is how much more will each state get,” said Ted Talbot, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation. “We’re going to be ready to add work to the 2016, 2017 and 2018 (plans), depending on the apportionment.”

Talbot said a core team of department staff is expected to meet with Transportation Commissioner David B. Bernhardt on Friday, when they hope to learn more details about what Maine would receive.

In the last two-year budget cycle, the lion’s share of the federal funding, about $165 million annually, went to highway projects, with the remainder going to rail and aviation.

It is too early to know exactly how the Maine DOT would spend the additional money, or which projects would be moved up in the state’s three-year work plan.


But state officials and transportation interest groups said the five-year compromise would be a welcome departure from nearly a decade of short-term fixes, when congressional leaders, unable to agree on revenue and tax policy, issued a series of continuing resolutions.

“What states want, and what companies who work for the state want, and what municipalities that rely on public dollars want is certainty and predictability,” said Maria Fuentes, executive director of the Maine Better Transportation Association.


In addition to the fuel tax on gasoline and diesel, revenue for the bill would be drawn from a host of one-time sources, including transferring $49 billion from the Federal Reserve over a decade, and the sale of 66 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

The deal does not, however, address the structural deficit that has plagued the Highway Trust Fund, the massive pool of fuel tax revenue that is supposed to cover the cost of transportation projects across the nation.

The fuel tax, at 18.4 cents per gallon on gasoline and diesel, has not been raised since 1993, and is not pegged to inflation, placing transportation planners in a quandary. As vehicles have become more efficient, the amount of wear and tear on highways, roads and bridges increases while tax revenue declines.


The dynamic has led to a $15 billion annual deficit, meaning that the Highway Trust Fund will again run out of cash in about four years.

“On a national level, on long-term transportation policy, there really hasn’t been any (policy),” Fuentes said. “What other states are doing is figuring out how to grow revenue without Congress.”

Some states, such as Oregon, are testing a program that charges drivers per mile instead of per gallon, spreading the tax burden more equally between high- and low-efficiency vehicles.

Other states have chosen to increase their fuel taxes. Maine charges 30 cents per gallon, among the highest rates in the nation. The Maine Motor Transport Association, which represents truckers and other transportation companies, supports a reasonable increase in the fuel tax, as long as proceeds go toward road maintenance, said Brian Parke, the organization’s president and CEO.


However, the likelihood of that increase, at either the national or local level, is unlikely.


“There’s a political reality down in D.C., and quite frankly in Augusta, where people don’t want to be seen as advocating for any tax increase, which is why you didn’t see it in this bill,” Parke said.

Throughout the state, there is no shortage of roads, bridges and highways that need attention.

As ranked by the American Society of Civil Engineers, 38 percent of Maine’s roadways are “fair” or “unacceptable,” according to the organization’s national infrastructure report card.

Projects throughout the state are prioritized and scheduled three years in advance, with planners updating annually what they hope to accomplish in the year to come.

Any extra funding would likely be used on some of Maine’s deteriorating bridges, many of which are outmoded and unsafe.

A report released in March concluded that if the state did not double bridge maintenance funding to $140 million annually, about 40 percent of the 2,744 in its care would need extensive rehabilitation or replacement, all at a far greater cost in future years.

“It’s always fair to say that every state’s transportation needs exceed available funding,” Talbot said.


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