Legislature must increase funding for roads, bridges

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Maine roads have taken a real beating this winter, made worse by years of deferred maintenance. So, too, have state bridges, rail lines, airports and seaports lacked proper maintenance.

Our statewide transportation infrastructure is suffering, and the cost of delaying fixes is only making matters worse. Maine’s 21st-century economy needs a 21st-century transportation network. It’s time to fix our roads and bridges.

Every time we fuel up at the pump, we pay state and federal fuel taxes. The federal fuel tax has remained unchanged at 18 cents per gallon since 1993, and our state fuel tax, right in the middle of other states, has remained unchanged for many years.

The needs of our transportation system, however, have not remained constant. In fact, our needs have grown dramatically — roads are crumbling, bridges are deficient and we’re not making the smart, strategic plans needed to effectively move people and goods from place to place.

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The Highway Fund, the budget that funds the maintenance and construction of Maine roads and bridges, relies on those fuel taxes for roughly two-thirds of its revenue. In addition to the stagnant fuel tax rates, we are also seeing a precipitous decline in revenue into the Highway Fund because Mainers are driving more fuel-efficient vehicles. While this is good news for our health and the environment, it makes it more difficult for the state to fund necessary infrastructure projects.

That problem will only worsen as the years go on. Maine is also 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. The space and lack of density are part of what makes Maine great, but they also contribute to transportation funding challenges.

Those factors have led to an annual funding shortfall of $160 million. According to the Maine Department of Transportation’s latest work plan, our highway and bridge system requires an additional $160 million every year just to keep up with basic maintenance. MaineDOT engineers released a report two years ago 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.

In recent years, the Transportation Committee has worked with the Department of Transportation to find savings and achieve efficiencies to make up for the loss of revenues. MaineDOT’s ability to stretch the dollar has never been better. In recent years, MaineDOT has reduced its work force by more than 400 positions to stave off significant cuts in projects. New design, engineering and financing processes have been put in place to ensure Maine is getting the best deal for every project.

The DOT also puts out a three-year work plan which outlines, based on projected funding, all the projects, from small to large, that will be completed during the next three years. These projects are put into the Work Plan based on the need. While the Transportation Committee has jurisdiction over the budget, we leave it to the engineers at the department to figure out which roads and bridges need to be fixed and when; it’s an engineering plan, not a political plan.

In addition, new reports, including the ‘Keeping Our Bridges Safe Report’ and the ‘Roads Report’ have laid out a strategic plan for our infrastructure, from funding to maintenance to ongoing operations. This is the kind of planning our transportation infrastructure needs. In my view, the DOT has earned the public’s trust. With the comprehensive planning and efficient use of funds in place, it is time to talk about further investments.

Maintaining our transportation infrastructure is an expensive endeavor, but it’s critical to the success of our economy. This is an area where pragmatic people — regardless of political party — should find common ground. This problem requires real leadership, not partisanship. That is why I have sponsored several bills this session to address this issue, which incorporate both Republican and Democratic ideas.

Fixing Maine’s roads and bridges will cost money — that’s the honest truth. It will take political courage to pursue the changes we need to make and finding a bipartisan solution likely won’t be easy, but it’s the right thing to do.

A safe, reliable transportation system is crucial to keeping our businesses competitive. If we are serious about building a stronger economic future for Maine, it’s time to secure sustainable funding to build — and maintain — the infrastructure to support it.

We don’t drive on Republican or Democratic roads. We drive on our Maine roads, and it is time we fix them.

Rep. Andrew McLean, D-Gorham, is chairman of the Transportation Committee.

Rep. Andrew McLean

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