Why we must borrow for better roads


Roads in all parts of Maine are crumbling, and the public knows it.

In the final days of this session, the Legislature will consider a plan from the Transportation Committee to borrow $60 million to restore road and bridge projects that the state had planned to carry out, but canceled last fall because of rising costs and funding shortfalls. The plan does not have the support of leadership of either party, and it’s unusual for such a measure to even be considered, let alone approved.

Yet we must approve it. My colleagues and I on the committee feel strongly about this. I have served on Transportation throughout my four years in the House, and I know that our transportation infrastructure is not what it should be. Even the original Department of Transportation program for 2006-07 made little progress on a huge backlog of unmet needs. Losing 20 percent of those projects, the prospect we now face, would put us much further behind.

Leadership did agree to allocate $30 million from the general and highway funds, but balked at borrowing any money, as recommended by the governor’s working group that studied the situation and reported in January. We believe that leadership decision to be mistaken.

Roads in all parts of Maine are crumbling, and the public knows it. Transportation bonds are routinely the most popular question on the ballot when they appear, because voters know how much a rural state depends on its road network.

Leadership decided against a general obligation bond that requires voter approval, but there are other methods. We are recommending use of a GARVEE bond that anticipates federal funding, money we know we will get in future years, but which will not be allocated in the next two years. Using a GARVEE bond has no effect on the state’s bonded indebtedness because it simply offsets another revenue source.

MDOT has been doing a great job to reduce its overall debt, which has declined from more than 14 percent of the budget to less than five percent today – and it will go lower, because last year’s transportation bond was smaller than usual. This is the perfect time to borrow for long-term needs because without it our highway program will shrink drastically, and MDOT has more than adequate fiscal capacity. The highway fund is in excellent shape, but our roads are definitely not.

Because a GARVEE bond does not pledge the state’s “full faith and credit,” it does not require voter approval, yet we believe the public should have a say. If our plan is approved by a majority of both houses, it will go on the ballot for voter ratification, just as if it were a general obligation bond.

I should stress that none of us wants to be in the place we find ourselves. We respect our party leaders, and most of the time they make the right call. But in what is truly an emergency situation, with a major state program hanging in the balance, we believe we must place this borrowing question directly before the full Legislature.

If they study the situation, as we have, and weigh the consequences of inaction, they will also come to the same realization that we did: this is the best alternative we have right now.

If we fail to act, we stand to lose 2,500 good jobs, as well as a vital investment in the future of all our communities. If you truly can’t get there from here, in any part of Maine, then we have failed to keep the commitments that our constituents rightly expect us to honor.

Rep. Sonya Sampson of Auburn serves on the State and Local Government and Transportation committees.