Transportation budget for state trimmed 1.2%

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AUGUSTA – A state transportation budget that’s 1.2 percent smaller than the previous two-year spending plan for roads, bridges, ports, railroads and other people- and freight-moving services was presented Friday on a full day of budget-filing for Gov. John Baldacci.

Baldacci’s transportation budget for the two years starting in July seeks nearly $688 million, about $8 million less than the $696 million in the budget for the previous biennium.

Transportation projects also receive federal money on top of state revenues.

A decrease from one budget cycle to another is “very unusual,” said Karen Doyle, director of the Transportation Department’s finance bureau. The decrease is due to lower revenue projections.

Like the General Fund budget, which covers most other state programs and drew most of the attention when it was also presented Friday, the transportation budget faces line-by-line scrutiny by a legislative committee in the months ahead and final votes by the House and Senate before it is enacted.

The bulk of state-generated transportation revenue – nearly 70 percent in the upcoming budget – comes from motor fuel taxes, with another 25 percent from motor vehicle registrations and fees, and the rest from fines, penalties and a few other sources.

The tap has been partially closed as a result of a combination of factors. Higher gas prices cause motorists to cut down on driving and use less gas. Improved engine efficiency also results in less fuel purchased and less tax paid.

The executive director of an agency that lobbies for improved transportation facilities expressed concern with the proposed budget, but said pressures squeezing it are nothing new.

“It used to be that the fuel tax along with federal funding was enough to deliver a reasonable program,” said Maria Fuentes of the Maine Better Transportation Association. But she said inflation is taking a toll. She also believes Maine should be getting more highway money from the federal government.

There are also uncertainties, such as what a transportation bond package – if any – from the Legislature will look like. A bond package would help to finance capital improvements.

Inflation has been addressed at least in part by the indexing of fuel taxes, but the current tax rate will not be adjusted until July. The tax increase has been running about 0.7 cent, said Fuentes.

Maine’s fuel taxes are 26.8 cents per gallon for gasoline and 27.9 cents for diesel.

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