Mainers love their cars and trucks but hate roads. At least they hate paying for them.

All forms for funding of road construction, repair and maintenance are under attack lately, making us wonder what kind of transportation system people of this state expect to have. Recently we’ve seen shots fired at three targets.

Target No. 1 was the gas tax. Already inadequate to keep up with the state’s needs, the recently adjourned Legislature ended the practice of indexing the per gallon gas tax, making sure that it will become even less effective over time unless we elect a Legislature with the foresight and courage to raise it. It could happen, but don’t hold your breath.

Target No. 2 was bonding. A road infrastructure bond was approved by the Legislature and will be sent to the voters in November, but without the governor’s signature.

Gov. Paul LePage says he will vote against the bond on Election Day, and encourages others to do the same, because, in his estimation, the state can’t afford to take on more borrowing. If the people pass the bond anyway, he has made it clear that he would be in no hurry to sell the bonds and spend the money.

Target No. 3 is the proposed toll increase for the Maine Turnpike. It is necessary because the highway’s current toll revenue is not adequate to pay off the bonds that were sold to pay for the construction of a third lane in each direction in the most heavily traveled section. People from Androscoggin County at the northern end of the 109 mile highway, York County on the southern end and greater Portland in the middle have all argued that the toll system would be more fair if people who live in the other sections paid more of the cost.

If all these opponents of the gas tax, bond issues and toll increases were planning to abandon their cars, move to densely populated cluster subdivisions connected by public transit, all this opposition might make sense.

Since Maine, however, is expected to remain a sparsely populated, mostly rural state, personal automobiles are going to be the mode of transportation that people of all income brackets depend on for some time to come.

This is as true for the people who live here as it is for the tourists who visit and contribute so much to our economy.

If we are going to have a functional road system in the decades ahead, we should rethink this hostility we have to every method of paying for it.

The gas tax used to work, supporting our highway system with funds collected from the people who used it. The more miles you drove, the more you paid. What could be more fair?

For some time, however, the tax hasn’t been high enough to do its intended job.

Political opposition to raising the tax has kept it from keeping up with our needs. As gasoline becomes more expensive, people use less of it, either by driving fewer miles or operating more efficient vehicles. The gas tax is a per gallon tax, not a percentage of the sale price, so when gas prices climb, gas tax revenues fall.

The easiest fix would be to convert the gas tax into a sales tax rather than a per-gallon levy. Then the state would be better able to keep up with rising costs of steel and asphalt needed to fix roads and bridges.

Not all highway funding can be pay-as-you go, which is why steady investment through bonding should be part of the highway funding picture. Infrastructure projects have long-term positive impacts, so it makes sense to pay for them over time.

Mainers should vote to support transportation bonds and keep the heat on the governor to make sure that the money is put to work.

And lastly, Maine drivers should get over their aversion to tolls. The Maine Turnpike is the best built and maintained road in the state, thanks to the way it is financed. No one likes to pay tolls, but they are the best way to make sure that the people who use the highway, including out-of-state truckers and tourists, pay the cost.

Maine residents who haven’t done so already can give themselves a break by buying an EZ-Pass transponder and pay a discounted rate. Only half of Maine residents do so now.

It’s time we had a statewide conversation about the kind of transportation system Maine people want. It is likely that we should be prepared to give something up — either our love affair with the automobile or our aversion to paying for roads.

You can’t have one without the other, and if the cost of a functional highway system is really beyond our reach, then we should consider modes of transportation.


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