As you bump along Maine’s highways this summer, take a moment to reflect on this fact: No matter how ragged our infrastructure is today, it could get much worse.

That’s because Washington is engaged in an election-year standoff over the highway trust fund, which will run out of money in August unless something is done. That “something” is likely to be a stop-gap influx of federal funding that will pay for some but not all of the highway projects that have already been approved. So Maine will likely have to let more of its vital infrastructure crumble for another year.

For a state with a widely dispersed population, that has manufacturing plants far from suppliers and markets and which relies on tourism for much of its income, this is disappointing news. And when you consider that it doesn’t have to happen at all, it should be enough to make people truly angry.

The answer is the gas tax, which has always been the primary source of funding for highway projects but hasn’t been increased since 1993. With inflation cutting into buying power every year, the decision not to touch the gas tax has amounted to a 64 percent cut to highway spending over the last 21 years.

What today costs 64 percent less than it did in 1993? Certainly not road materials or labor. To think we could support our infrastructure with steadily reducing funding would be bad enough if we were only seeking to maintain it. But we have to do better — we have to improve it.

For decades, the gas tax was able to do the job, sharing the burden fairly. The more you drove, the more you’d pay. It produced enough revenue to build the greatest highway system in the world.

But along the way it has become politically unpopular to ask people to pay for the government services they use. Freezing the gas tax at 18.4 cents a gallon may look fiscally responsible, but it is a recipe for decay.

Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who also used to be a Republican member of Congress, is traveling the country this summer and calling for a 10-cent hike in the gas tax and then linking it to inflation after that. (Unlike a sales tax, the gas tax is charged on a per gallon basis.) It wouldn’t make up for the revenue lost to high-mileage and electric vehicles, but it would at least be a start.

Even that modest increase, however, is considered to be politically out of reach in an election year, so the problems with our roads are just going to get worse.

Americans should not let this happen. Voters should demand that Congress recognize transportation as a core government function and find a way to maintain and improve the system we have. The people who depend on Maine’s crumbling highways deserve no less.

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