AUGUSTA — The quality of U.S. roads and bridges will continue to fall behind other countries if more funding isn’t devoted to infrastructure projects, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood told hundreds of attendees at the state’s major transportation conference Thursday.

LaHood, a keynote speaker for the 64th annual Maine Transportation Conference at the Augusta Civic Center, told the transportation industry members to urge their congressional leaders to pass a longer term transportation bill and shore up the struggling Highway Trust Fund with an increase of federal fuel taxes.

“What’s happened around the country is America has become one big pothole, and in states where they haven’t put the resources into infrastructure, you have crumbling roads, bridges that are falling down,” LaHood said.

LaHood, who served as transportation secretary from 2009 to 2013, said the state of Maine has made good progress, but he cautioned that the nation’s transportation infrastructure would continue to suffer without providing more funding. Transportation systems, such as the Interstate Highway System, first authorized in 1956, are key for attracting businesses, he said.

“How are we going to rebuild our state, our communities, create economic development, create jobs for our friends and neighbors if we don’t have the resources?” LaHood said.

In July, federal lawmakers passed a short-term fix to fund repairs to the country’s transportation systems through next May. The Highway Trust Fund has faced financial difficulties in recent years because federal gasoline and diesel taxes, on which it largely relies for funding, haven’t increased since 1993, while the fuel efficiency of vehicles has improved.

The stopgap measure provided money to the fund that had been expected to run dry that August and prevented jeopardizing 117,000 transportation jobs around the country. But the transfers from the general fund were offset by extending customs fees and a budget process allowing corporations to reduce contributions to employee pension plans, according to The Washington Post.

LaHood said that although public-private partnerships, tolls and other federal funding programs can help improve the country’s infrastructure, increasing the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gas tax is necessary. If the government had tied fuel taxes to inflation in 1993, when they were last raised, the Highway Trust Fund wouldn’t be running out of money.

“We’re not going to rebuild America, we’re not going to turn America from one big pothole to the kind of system we had once, maybe 10 years ago, unless we have a big pot of money. That’s my point,” LaHood said.

Gov. Paul LePage, who spoke before LaHood, warned attendees that the state wouldn’t be increasing its own gas tax.

“I just wanted to let all of Maine know it’s not an option. We’re not interested in raising the gas tax. We are interested in finding new ways, creative ways, innovative ways to get an infrastructure” without putting the burden on taxpayers, LePage said.

The state collects about 30 cents per gallon of gasoline in taxes, the 19th-highest in the country, according to the American Petroleum Institute. The 30 cents is just under the national average.

Although LaHood said he wasn’t advocating for a higher state gas tax in Maine, he encouraged conference attendees Thursday to urge the state’s congressional delegation to raise the federal tax as part of a six-year transportation bill. Before becoming transportation secretary, LaHood served for 14 years as a Republican U.S. representative from Illinois.

Maine’s U.S. senators and representatives reached by the Kennebec Journal agreed that the country is underfunding its infrastructure, but they had different ideas for solutions.

U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent, said it’s clear the country’s infrastructure needs significant work, most recently evidenced in Maine by the collapse of part of the Eastport harbor pier early Thursday morning. King said lawmakers have to consider raising the gas tax and indexing it to inflation. Unlike sales and income taxes, which rise as prices and salaries go up, the gas tax has been fixed since 1993, he said.

“It used to be called pay-as-you-go, but the problem is we’re going more than we’re paying,” he said.

King said there have been a lot of discussions among lawmakers about increasing the gas tax, but he doesn’t know whether that will translate into a bill being passed.

“Everyone realizes there’s a problem, but when you start talking about solutions, people tend to look at their shoes,” he said.

Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, ranking member of the Senate transportation appropriations subcommittee, said in a statement that Congress has been passing patchwork fixes in recent years to prevent transportation projects from grinding to a halt all over the country.

Collins said it’s likely the Senate’s finance committee will develop options for making the Highway Trust Fund solvent early next year. Increasing the gas tax probably will be part of that discussion, but it won’t be the only option explored, she said.

“We must be mindful that in rural states, like Maine, where public transit largely does not exist outside of cities, working families often have no choice but to drive long distances to earn a living,” Collins said in the statement. “Any solution should not place an unfair burden on these individuals.”

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, said in a statement that something needs to be done about the gas tax not keeping pace with the country’s infrastructure needs, but that the gas tax may not be the best way to fund the work needed. She said lawmakers should look at different kinds of taxes linked to how much a vehicle is using the roads because vehicles are using less gasoline — and no gasoline in the case of all-electric cars.

“We are seriously underfunding infrastructure in this country. All you have to do is look at the condition of many roads and bridges in Maine to know that,” Pingree said.

In her statement, Pingree blamed the short-term funding measure on House Republicans who blocked the last long-term reauthorization of the transportation bill.

A spokesman for Rep.-elect Bruce Poliquin, R-2nd District, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Public survey polls show a mix of support and opposition to raising gas taxes, depending on the size of the increase and what it would be used for.

A study published in 2014 by the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research institute in San Jose, Calif., found that a 10-cents-per-gallon increase was supported by 69 percent of respondents if the revenue was used to improve road maintenance, but support dropped to 25 percent if it was used more generally to maintain and improve the transportation system.

Elizabeth McKenney, the owner of a taxi company in Winthrop who drives about 1,000 miles a week, said she’s against increasing the federal gas tax.

“Whenever they raise taxes on gas, anybody that’s in the transportation industry suffers. It cuts into the bottom line,” McKenney said.

Potholes and cracked roads often damage her Central Maine Taxi vehicles, but she said her experience has been if a road is paved, frost heaves and wear from plow trucks tear it up again in a couple of years.

“We’re like a giant mudding pit here for roads,” McKenney said.

Paul Koenig — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @paul_koenig


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