Once a week at lunch time I drive my 1992 sedan north on Mt. Vernon Avenue, from my office in downtown Augusta to a sandwich shop called College Carryout, where I buy a ham Italian and bag of chips. But increasingly, and especially this time of year, it feels like I’m driving into a dystopian future where public highways are left to crumble and only people with dirt bikes and off-road trucks will be able to drive anywhere.
So I was not surprised to read in this newspaper on April 7 that Mount Vernon Avenue is a top candidate for the Maine Better Transportation Association’s (MBTA) “Worst Road in Maine” contest.
A combination of increasing fuel efficiency, rising costs for road materials and construction, and a federal gas tax that hasn’t been raised since the Clinton administration mean that Maine has to step up and take care of its roads. On top of being a safety hazard, crumbling roads are bad for all types of Maine businesses, not just busy sandwich shops. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the lousy condition of the state’s roads cost Mainers an extra $299 per year in vehicle maintenance and repair costs.
Unfortunately, Maine’s lawmakers have made our road problems worse, not better. While many states, even some led by Republican governors, have raised gasoline and diesel taxes in recent years to pay for critical maintenance and improvement to their transportation networks, Gov. LePage and the 125th Legislature took Maine in the opposite direction, cutting gasoline and diesel taxes in 2011 by breaking their automatic link to overall price inflation. With that change now in effect, Maine’s highway fund is en route to oblivion.
The 2011 gasoline and diesel tax cuts reduce the balance of the state’s highway fund — the primary source of funding for Maine’s transportation infrastructure — by $11 million in the current fiscal year and $16 million in the fiscal year beginning in July, according to Legislature’s budget office. The price tag will continue to grow every year as prices in the broader economy continue to increase and gasoline and diesel taxes fail to keep pace. As a result, Maine’s Revenue Forecasting Committee expects the highway fund to decline through the foreseeable future, even before accounting for inflation.
Although some may point to declining highway fund revenue as a sign that the gas tax is becoming obsolete in an era of rapidly increasing fuel efficiency, the reality is that gasoline and diesel taxes coupled with bonding to leverage federal highway funds remain the best way to fund our transportation infrastructure. Lawmakers can fix the mistake they made in 2011 by linking the state’s taxes on transportation fuels to the cost of maintaining and repairing our roads, bridges, ports, railways, and the rest of our transportation infrastructure. This would secure the gas tax as a viable source of funding for the long haul.
Gasoline and diesel taxes follow the common-sense principle that those who use the roads the most should pay the most for their continued maintenance and repair. It demands more from those who drive further distances and those who drive the heaviest vehicles that do the most damage to the road surface. With millions of visitors and part-year residents driving all over Maine’s highways, some of the 2011 tax cut accrues to residents and businesses located in other states. Meanwhile, Mainers who commute to a job every day and Maine businesses that depend on the roads to get their products and services to market pay the price of more wear and tear to their vehicles.
While it’s true that increases in the gas tax are regressive — they take a bigger bite from of the budgets of low-income households than from high-income households — lawmakers can easily address this inequity by tweaking other parts of the state’s tax code. Taxes on gas, diesel, and other fuels accounted for only about 4.7 percent of the average Maine household’s state and local tax bill in 2009, according to a study by Maine Revenue Services.
Allowing inflation to eat away at the primary source of funding for critical infrastructure is irresponsible stewardship of Maine’s publicly-owned and funded transportation assets. Maine lawmakers should return the highway fund to long-term financial health and help Maine drivers get out of the repair shop and back on safe, well-maintained roads.
Joel Johnson is an economist at the Maine Center for Economic Policy.