State of Maine: Road maintenance solutions continue to hit speed bumps

In my May 9 column, I wrote about bonds, citing Rep. Justin Fecteau as the only Republican who has sponsored a bond this session. Wrong. The bond for equipment for career and technical education centers was sponsored by a different Fecteau, Democratic Rep. Ryan Fecteau.

Sponsor Ryan Fecteau represents part of Biddeford and is the House assistant majority leader. He is currently serving his third term in the House. Rep. Justin Fecteau is a Republican from Augusta serving his first term. My sincere apologies to both representatives for confusing one for the other. This makes the current count for prime sponsors of general fund bonds Democrats 37, Republicans 0.

The lopsided sponsorship of bonds reflects an ideological difference between Democrats and Republicans. Though bonds are a means of funding large capital projects, they are also about borrowing money and creating debt, not to mention spending a substantial amount in interest payments. In a perfect world, paying for what we need up front would seem the way to go. But can we? Let’s do a reality check.

Maine has more roads per person than any other New England state, and a higher proportion of state money goes into those roads. The biggest source of transportation funding (about 70 percent per latest data posted) comes from the fuel tax. Motor vehicle registrations and fees provide another 27 percent. Transportation has gone from 26 percent of state spending to 10 percent.

Maine’s annual highway maintenance budget is over $390 million. According to the Office of Fiscal and Program review, that leaves a “structural gap” (identified need versus available revenue) of an almost equal amount. Those who prefer not to bond for transportation funding do not want to raise taxes or fees, either. How can we meet that need and still achieve “pay as you go” status?

In addition to the above-noted revenues, the state borrows about $100 million per year to fund transportation projects. Amidst the talk of fiscal responsibility, reducing waste and “tough choices,” here’s some “belt-tightening” for you. To fill that $100-million gap without bonds, new fees or taxes we would have to eliminate the Department of Agriculture, the Secretary of State’s Office and the Maine Maritime Academy.

Those are just examples, of course. Other choices could be made. But we are not talking about nibbling around the edges here. We’re talking real money. On top of that, to address the estimated annual funding shortfall of over $350 million, say goodbye to the Maine Community College System, the departments of Economic and Community Development, Marine Resources and Inland Fish and Wildlife and the Maine State Library.

There’s more. This year the construction cost of projects already planned has risen so much that 15 have either been cancelled or bids have been rejected. The total cost for these projects was about $60 million. Half of them were bridge replacements.

The Legislature continues to argue the merits of bonding, but there is not much being offered to remedy the disastrous condition of our roads and bridges. There was a bill in the previous session that would have spread the cost of increased road repair funding over several revenue sources that are often discussed but never implemented.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Andrew McLean, would have increased the fees for a variety of Department of Motor Vehicle services, put a surcharge on fuel-efficient vehicles, sent 10 percent of the sales tax on automobile-related items to the DOT and increased the gas tax by 7 cents.

None of these are terribly popular, mind you, but that’s the problem. Legislators say they want to fix the roads, but few want to support a realistic plan to do so. This particular bill was proposed for further consideration by the Senate but allowed to die without final action in the House in September of 2018.

It seems that ideological differences are putting us beyond being able to find an acceptable solution to something as fundamental as road maintenance. We see the need for it every day as we rattle our way to and fro, going about our business, but are we making any headway in solving the problem? We are not.

Last week, Augusta Democrats made a move for which they had roundly criticized Republicans during the LePage administration. Governor Janet Mills issued her first veto on a bill to prohibit the sale of gasoline with more than 10 percent ethanol.

The bill had been zooming through the Legislature until it hit the veto wall. “E 15” gas is not currently sold in Maine, and the federal government has approved it for vehicles less than 18 years old. No matter. Democrats who had previously voted for the measure did a quick U-turn to stand by their Governor and spare her the overriding of her first veto.

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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