Our roads have taken a real beating this winter, made worse by years of deferred maintenance. Our bridges, rail lines, airports and seaports also have lacked proper maintenance. Our statewide transportation infrastructure is suffering, and delaying repairs only makes matters worse. In order to fix our transportation network, however, state leaders in Augusta must have an honest conversation about our needs.
Every time we fuel up at the pump, we pay state and federal gas taxes. The federal gas tax has remained unchanged at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993, and our state gas tax is below the national average. Moreover, Mainers are driving in cars that are becoming increasingly more fuel-efficient, which means that we’re buying fewer gallons of gas per vehicle. This is good for our environment and our health, but when we buy less gas, we contribute fewer dollars over the course of the year to the Highway Fund, the pot of money used to finance the maintenance and construction of our roads and bridges.
The needs of our transportation system have not remained stagnant, however, they’ve grown dramatically. Roads are crumbling, bridges are deficient, and we’re not making the smart, strategic plans needed to effectively move people and goods from place to place.
Reliance on an ever-decreasing Highway Fund has led to an annual shortfall of $150 million to fund our most basic of transportation needs, just maintaining what we have, so we’re forced to bond for many of our road maintenance needs. While bonding is a viable financing option, it should be used for long-term projects and not year-to-year maintenance. Consequently, we have no money available for any new roads or long-term transformational projects.
If nothing is done about the Highway Fund shortfall, the condition of our roads today will seem terrific compared to what they will look like in five years.
The long-term neglect of our transportation system has set back Maine’s economy. A 21st century economy needs a 21st century transportation network. After we’ve spent these last two years on the Transportation Committee, nothing could be more clear: We need to invest in our transportation system — and soon.
Imagine the Maine economy without the interstate, our three cargo ports, rail service to Aroostook or the Portland and Bangor airports. What would our midcoast economy look like without the Sagadahoc or Penobscot Narrows bridges? What is the cost of posted roads and bridges that force motorists and truckers to find longer, alternative routes? What are the costs of time-consuming delays in traffic-congested areas such as Gorham and Westbrook or Augusta and Waterville? And what about the extraordinary expenses and loss of productivity associated with accidents resulting from unsafe conditions and the auto repair costs we incur every year from the cavernous holes in our roads?
The sticker price to fix our transportation infrastructure is shocking to a lot of people and doesn’t include the additional modernization that we need. But the cost of failing to fix our transportation system is far greater than the cost of properly maintaining it. This is an area where pragmatic people, regardless of political party, should be able to find common ground.
By providing for a 21st century transportation system, we can save money by paying less for traffic delays that take away time from family and work, lost jobs with companies that cannot afford Maine’s transportation deficiencies, accidents with personal injury or loss of life and higher insurance rates or car repairs for bent wheel rims, tie rods, front end alignments and the like.
Ensuring the vitality of our transportation system is not a partisan issue. It’s a Maine issue. We know we cannot stay on this bumpy road for much longer. The next Legislature must take steps to close the transportation funding gap and make smart plans to rebuild our roads and bridges that will reduce our long-term costs and grow our economy.
How we do this is a different conversation, but it is one that is taking place.
Rep. Andrew McLean, D-Gorham, and Rep. Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, serve on the Legislature’s Transportation Committee.