AUGUSTA (AP) – Nearly five months after a report recommended a significant increase in funding for bridge replacements and repairs in Maine, Gov. John Baldacci on Tuesday unveiled legislation to raise $160 million over four years to fix up and preserve Maine’s bridges.

Baldacci’s plan envisions 246 bridge projects, including 80 bridge replacements across the state, to be financed through new revenue bonds along with existing resources.

Maine, along with other states, inspected its traffic-bearing spans following last summer’s I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis to see if any dangers lurked.

A follow-up report that came out in November listed among two dozen recommendations boosting the $70 million in annual spending on repairs and replacements by another $50 million to $60 million. It also called for more than doubling the annual number of bridge replacements to 30 or 40.

“The tragedy last year in Minneapolis showed the world that we must remain vigilant when it comes to our bridges,” Baldacci said in a statement announcing his proposal.

The governor’s bill would authorize revenue bonds of $40 million per year for four years. To pay them off, three annual motor vehicle fees would be increased. Motor vehicle registration fees would increase from $25 to $35, title fees would rise from $23 to $33, and vanity plate fees would jump from $15 to $25.

The proposed revenue bonds would not require voter authorization.

Baldacci’s proposal drew strong legislative sponsorship and an expression of support from advocates for transportation improvements, who urged legislative action.

“We have stretched the useful lives of our bridges more than most other states in the nation and, as a result, we have more bridges that are structurally deficient, according to federal authorities,” said Lauren Corey, president of the Maine Better Transportation Association.

By underfunding bridge and road reconstruction, the state is flirting with disaster, said MBTA Executive Director Maria Fuentes. She pointed to the recent replacement of the Waldo-Hancock Bridge between Prospect and Verona Island as an example of what can happen when bridge maintenance slips.

After corroded suspension cables were discovered in 2003, the state had to detour heavier trucks 40 miles to other routes until additional backup cables could be strung.

The bridge has since been replaced.

The transportation group said that if Maine continues to replace bridges at the rate of the last few years, the 200 spans now over 80 years old will total 400 in 10 years, 600 in 20 years and 800 in 40 years.

The MBTA and Baldacci both said the bridge projects would prompt economic activity and create jobs.

The bill is co-sponsored by both of the chairs of the Transportation Committee, Sen. Dennis Damon and Rep. Boyd Marley, and other members of the committee among more than two dozen lawmakers from both parties.

The committee has been searching in recent years for ways to rebuild slipping highway and bridge revenues. Damon, D-Trenton, and Marley, D-Portland, asked the governor to take up the cause.

“To succeed at this time, we strongly believe you must lead this effort, starting with a Governor’s bill,” Damon and Marley wrote to Baldacci.

AP-ES-04-08-08 1742EDT

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