Maine has a free-rider problem when it comes to infrastructure, but it’s not the one they are talking about in Augusta.

Gov. Paul LePage and his allies in the Legislature want to charge an annual fee to the owners of electric and hybrid vehicles because they don’t pay as much in the taxes that fund maintenance and repairs of the state’s road system.

But the proposed bill, L.D. 1806, is an inadequate response to a much bigger problem, which is that nobody is paying their fair share. Gas tax rates have not kept up with either inflation or our needs, leaving the state with more roads than their users are willing to support.

Gov. LePage’s swipe at a few hundred electric vehicle owners might look like a step in the right direction, but it’s such a small step that it’s useless, and just delays constructive discussion on how to pay for a 21st century transportation system.

Maine will likely have another nine-digit shortfall in its highway fund this year, with an estimated $159 million less in receipts from fuel and excise taxes than is needed to keep roads and bridges safe for travel.

We will also probably be asked to approve another bond on Election Day, as we did in 2017, 2016 and 2015 to supplement the inadequate income from the dedicated taxes.

Borrowing money for ongoing expenses is a recipe for fiscal disaster. The state needs to generate more revenue to maintain the road system that we already have, and save the bonds for new projects.

The increasing popularity of electric and hybrid vehicles are a part of the problem — but a tiny part, for now. There are 19,000 hybrids registered in Maine and 410 all electrics. If they were all charged the fees that LePage proses ($150 a year for hybrids, $250 for plug-in electrics), the state would take in an estimated $2.9 million, not even making a dent in the shortfall.

Electric vehicle owners aren’t the only ones who avoid the tax. High mileage gas vehicles are also paying less tax per mile and that disparity will grow every year as older cars go off the road and are replaced with more efficient models.

But by far the biggest problem is not fuel efficiency, it is the fact that no one seems to think that they should have to pay the real cost of maintaining the transportation system.

The federal gas tax is 18.4 cents, where it has been since 1993. Maine’s gas tax is 30 cents (31 for diesel) and has not been increased since 2011. Both are a fraction of what they were at the time when most of the roads and bridges that we use were built.

When the federal Highway Trust Fund was created in 1956 to build the Interstate Highway System, the federal gas tax was only 3 cents a gallon. In 1959 it was bumped up to 4 cents and if it had risen with inflation it would be 34 cents today. Instead, its been stuck at less than half that for the last 25 years.

In 1932 Maine voters turned down a referendum that would have increased the gas tax from 5 cents a gallon to 6 cents. In today’s money, 5 cents would be 87 cents and 6 cents would be $1.04. The current rate is one third of what it would have been if it had kept up with inflation.

If people who use the roads of Maine — residents, tourists and commercial drivers — would contribute to road maintenance with the same effort that their grandparents made, there would not be any shortfall in the highway fund. But because we all want someone else to pay, the problem just keeps getting worse.

Rep. Andrew McLean, D-Gorham, House chairman of the Transportation Committee proposed a bill last year that would take a more balanced approach. It would introduce a fee for electric vehicles, but it would also raise the gas tax by 7 cents. That really would be a step in the right direction.

The real problem, for Maine and the country as a whole, is that the system of taxes and fees that built the road system in the 20th century no longer generates enough revenue to maintain them. We should be talking about the future and designing a system that will work.

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