LEWISTON — Two-thirds of the light paving projects scheduled for rural roads, known as maintenance surface paving projects, have been canceled for this year. All of those projects for next year also have been canceled, according to the Maine Department of Transportation.

The cancellations were announced earlier this summer, and came as no surprise, as expected fuel tax revenue collections came in roughly $52 million short of expectations, and lawmakers weren’t able to balance road maintenance needs with the available highway fund resources.

Proposals to raise the gas tax have dominated discussions of the Maine Legislature’s Transportation Committee, which recently met to discuss where to find roughly $25 million to reinstate some of the paving projects.

The Republican caucus has refused to support a tax increase, and Democrats have resisted approving one unilaterally on a party line vote, particularly because Gov. John Baldacci has said he would not agree to a tax increase without broad-based support.

Rep. Mike Carey, D-Lewiston, who serves on the Transportation Committee, said those opposed to raising taxes must remember that poor road conditions are dangerous and cost drivers money.

“About 65 of the people who die in accidents each year are due to poor road conditions and we all pay about $285 a year in increased maintenance costs to our cars because of the conditions of the roads,” he said, citing a report from the Maine Better Transportation Association and the Maine Development Foundation.

Fuel tax collections, which make up the majority of the revenue for the highway budget, were estimated to be $230 million in fiscal year 2009. The actual collections, however, only totaled $178 million, according to the Legislature’s Office of Fiscal and Program Review. The shortfall was caused by reduced fuel consumption due to Mainers driving less — thanks to high gas prices last summer combined with the plummeting economy last fall.

The Legislature adjourned in June, having closed the highway budget without an increased gas tax, despite a proposal to do so, and with the expectation that some paving obligations would go unmet. An amendment that would have increased the gas tax by 5 cents failed in the Senate, 33-2, with the two votes coming from senators serving on the Transportation Committee.

When the committee met in early August, members discussed raising the gas tax by 3 cents a gallon as a possible solution.

Carey said he understands nobody wants to raise taxes in the middle of a recession.

“But if I pay another three pennies on the couple hundred gallons of gas that I buy in a year, is that better than paying $285 a year for more (car) care maintenance?” he asked.

He pointed out that most of the canceled road paving projects were located in Republican districts.

“We’re only talking about rural roads and they are disproportionately through Republican districts,” he said. “It’s a game of bluff, which not only is short-sighted for the state but it also is stupid constituency politics. They think they can have their cake and eat it too.”

An analysis of the list of canceled projects does support Carey’s statement that most of them are represented by Republicans. More than 80 percent of the towns with canceled projects have Republican senators, and about 57 percent have Republican representatives.

“To avoid more major infrastructure catastrophes, we need to invest in maintenance paving and we need to make it a priority — not hold a gun to the people of Maine and say, ‘We’re not going to fix your roads unless you accept a tax increase,'” said Sen. Jon Courtney, R-Springvale, the Senate assistant minority leader.

Sen. Walter Gooley, R-Farmington, another Transportation Committee member, disagreed with Courtney, saying he believes raising taxes is the only short-term solution to the problem.

“The Republicans are just going to have to back down,” Gooley said. “That’s just the way it is.” He added that he is not running for re-election.

He said many Mainers aren’t complaining yet because they see plenty of road work getting done, thanks in part to the federal stimulus money. But that money can’t be used to fund the light paving projects that have been canceled, Gooley said.

Rep. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, a member of the Transportation Committee who has long opposed tax increases, said he would be willing to reconsider his position, but he would have to be convinced the money was being well-spent.

“As long as I see the mismanagement that we’re seeing, as long as I see us pave roads that don’t need to be paved, as long as I see the spin that we get from the DOT where we are not getting the real facts, no, I’m not going to vote to give them any more money,” he said.

Thomas said he’s convinced the MDOT can increase funding for paving in part by using money from the Transportation Capital Improvement Fund. The TransCap fund is an account created in 2007 dedicated to long-term infrastructure improvements, rather than routine maintenance projects. It receives revenue from vehicle registration, vanity plate and title fees, and 7.5 percent of gas tax collections, according to Herb Thomson, an MDOT spokesman.

The Ripley Republican also said the MDOT could make cuts elsewhere in its budget, particularly in staff positions and benefit reductions. The MDOT spokesman said they will have 38 fewer people on the payroll this year than last — and expect to reduce staff by about 40 more due to upcoming retirements. 

David Farmer, spokesman for the governor, said it’s a lot easier to craft sharp talking points than it is to make good public policy.

“If you could find that kind of savings in DOT, why wouldn’t the committee have done that?” he asked, emphasizing that the administration is always looking to find increased efficiencies. “The governor is not afraid of stepping on other people’s eggs.”

Senate President Libby Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, said lawmakers will have to decide what’s necessary when they reconvene next January.

“I don’t think anyone is looking for an ambitious program that goes beyond our pocketbooks, but what is it we simply must do to keep our infrastructure strong enough to have a growing economy?” she asked.

[email protected]

Fuel tax revenue

2005: $220 million

2006: $222 million

2007: $227 million

2008: $225 million

2009: $230 million estimated ($178 million collected)

2010: $220 million estimated

*According to the Office of Fiscal and Program Review

This section of Route 219 in Turner, between the intersections with
Routes 117 and 108, is one of dozens of road improvements scheduled for
next year that have been cancelled due to a lack of funding.

This section of Route 219 in Turner, between the intersections with Routes 117 and 108, is one of dozens of road improvements scheduled for next year that have been cancelled due to a lack of funding.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.