Yes on Question 2, but Maine still needs a better way to fund transportation projects
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Do you favor a $100,000,000 bond issue to build or improve roads, bridges, railroads, airports, transit facilities and ports and make other transportation investments, to be used to leverage an estimated $253,000,000 in federal and other funds?
For the seventh year in a row, Maine voters are being asked to support a bond of about $100 million to pay for needed upgrades and maintenance of the state’s transportation infrastructure, mostly our roads.
Voters should approve this bond, but they should also expect their elected leaders to agree on additional and better ways of paying for the big backlog of construction projects instead of turning to them to approve a $100 million bond every year.
This year, as in other recent transportation borrowing requests, the bulk of the money — $85 million will go toward roads and bridges. The remaining money – $15 million – will be spent on other modes of transportation, including railroads, airports and marine transportation. The bond will leverage $253 million in federal funds.
The American Society of Civil Engineers gave Maine a C-minus grade in 2020 for its overall infrastructure. The group’s report card gave Maine highways a D and our bridges a C-minus. The state’s rail system received a C-plus, aviation got a B, and our ports received a B-minus.
Deficient infrastructure is both costly to fix and costly in terms of shipping delays and other transportation interruptions.
Maine has a backlog of transportation work and not enough money to pay for it. This bond money is helpful, but it is not the full solution.
“Transportation needs in Maine continue to far outpace available resources for several reasons including Maine’s large land area, expansive transportation system, relatively low and widely dispersed population, and geology and weather that – while beautiful – are challenging when it comes to transportation infrastructure,” Transportation Commissioner Bruce Van Note said in a letter to lawmakers in January. “The scope of the chronic shortfall is daunting.”
The shortfall was pegged at more than $230 million per year, even with state bonding of $100 million or more every year, by a nonpartisan commission made up of legislators, transportation professionals, and other stakeholders.
The pandemic has added uncertainty to both the revenue and work plan side of the equation. The rising costs of labor and materials and a shortage of workers could impact the nearly 2,200 projects that are currently on the Department of Transportation’s three-year work plan.
The commission, which was created in 2019 and charged with finding ways to plug the transportation funding shortfall, simply called for more state funding. It did not identify where that money should come from, although it did say a substantial increase in general fund revenue be directed to transportation needs. General fund revenue supports a large array of state services and programs, as opposed to highway fund revenue and transportation bond funds, which are dedicated to transportation work.
Raising the state’s gas tax – and examining other ways to collect transportation user fees, such as a fee per miles driven, which would capture electric vehicles – also need to be considered as part of the solution
Maine’s fuel taxes — 30 cents per gallon for gasoline and 31.2 cents per gallon for diesel — have not been increased since 2011, when lawmakers passed legislation to end the indexing of fuel taxes in Maine. These taxes account for more than two-thirds of the state’s highway fund revenue.
Raising fuel taxes and indexing them to inflation is not politically palatable and not the full solution to the state’s transportation funding shortfalls. But, this and other revenue sources need to be part of a fuller discussion of how best to fund the state’s transportation needs.
In the meantime, a yes vote on Question 2 will pay for needed maintenance and upgrades to Maine’s transportation system.