State of Maine: Road funds have to come from somewhere

Snow, rain, freeze. Snow, rain, freeze. That was the weather pattern for the heart of winter this year. Casts on arms were this year’s fashion statement, and stores sold out of “creepers,” the little picky things that go on over your boots to give you a fighting chance at navigating the sidewalks.

It took a toll on our roads, as well. They are a mess. Winter is never kind to pavement, but this year was even harsher than usual. Potholes? Yeah, we’ve got potholes, but they are not the kind you can throw a little cold patch into and call it good. They are the kind you can drive right into and never be seen again.

There are big scabs in the roadway where the surface has been torn away. The centerline looks like it has been gnawed by mice. Big mice. Drivers veer wildly around these defects, hoping to spare their cars’ tires and suspension systems. Road shoulders have eroded, if not collapsed entirely. Signs have toppled over, been mowed down by snowplows or taken out by an out-of-control vehicle sliding across the ice.

Maine’s transportation infrastructure is woefully underfunded and has been for decades. Every year the Department of Transportation conducts a road analysis, identifies priorities and schedules work to be done in a three-year, rolling work plan. Projects in the first year of the plan are funded and scheduled. The next two years are anticipated projects, but those might be displaced if a greater need arises.

Factors that go into establishing priorities include road condition and traffic volume. Priority 1 is the Maine Turnpike, the interstate highway and “key principal arterials” (the Airline, Route 1 in the County, Route 2 west of Newport and Route 302). Priority 2 is “high-value arterials.” Priority 3 is the remaining arterials and “significant major collector highways.” Priority 4 is other collector highways and roads on which the state and municipalities share responsibility.

Priority 6 (apparently there is no Priority 5) is local roads and streets for which municipalities alone are responsible. This category covers 61 percent (14,362 miles) of all Maine roads but carry only 13 percent of statewide traffic. On the other hand, Priority 1 roads are just 8 percent of Maine’s road miles but carry 42 percent of all vehicle miles traveled in the state. Thank you, DOT, for your very helpful website.

Our state is enormous. Whether you live in the densely populated Portland area or in the far reaches of the County, there is a road that gets you pretty close to home. It adds up to over 23,000 miles of road. How do we pay to maintain all of those?

The Maine DOT has its own budget, separate from the General Fund. Within the Legislature, the DOT budget is managed by the Transportation Committee. LD 1002, representing the transportation proposal from the Mills administration, requests $676.6 million for the Highway Fund.

In the current fiscal year’s budget, 41 percent of transportation revenue comes from the Highway Fund, 33 percent from the federal government and 20 percent from state bonds. This latter category is controversial. Though transportation bonds for roads and bridges are invariably approved by the voters, some legislators believe this is an unacceptable level of debt to carry.

Increasing the gas tax is always a possibility, but never a popular one. In the ’90s, the Legislature “indexed” or tied the gas tax to inflation, providing automatic increases, but a subsequent Legislature repealed that. There is talk of a “seasonal gas tax” to extract more dollars from tourists traveling to Maine. Some opine that owners of high-mileage electric cars or hybrids are not paying their fair share, since they use less gas. A per-mile user fee is seen as one way to equalize this.

The DOT has no special plan to address what appears to be a monumental road repair bill this year, which comes on top of the usual shortfall under which the department operates. The department will continue to assess Maine roads, prioritize their maintenance needs and “do the best we can with the resources provided.”

Likewise, the Transportation Committee is working as usual to maximize funding, but with no special provisions for this winter’s devastation. Bills are in to look for a broader solution. LD 1435 directs the Transportation Committee to study “how to reform and adequately supplement” highway funding in order to “promote equity, sustainability and predictability” in revenues for the highway budget. LD 1034 would take direct action, increasing or implementing fees or taxes on everything from driver’s licenses to vehicle rentals and “transportation-related” items.

Some state programs are hard for the average Mainer to assess, but roads? We are all too aware of their condition. We just don’t want to pay what it would take to fix them.

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Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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