In the movie “Groundhog Day,” Phil Connors breaks a pencil before going to bed. When he wakes up and sees the pencil is as good as new, he knows he’s still stuck in his time loop, reliving the same day again and again.

For Maine voters, the annual transportation bond is our pencil. No matter how many times it’s approved, the bond comes back to the ballot, even though our roads and bridges never appear to get any better.

So here we are once again, not at Gobbler’s Nob, but just before an election, asking voters to approve Question 2 on the statewide ballot — and imploring policymakers to find a better way to fund our transportation system, particularly now, as that system needs to be restructured to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Question 2 asks voters to allow the state Department of Transportation to borrow up to $100 million, the bulk of which — $85 million — would go toward maintaining highways and bridges, while the remaining $15 million would fund public transit, freight, passenger rail, and marine and aviation infrastructure.

It would be the seventh straight year that Maine voters have approved a transportation bond, and there’s no good argument for voting against it.

For every $1 spent on roads and bridges, another $2.50 comes to Maine from the federal government; there’s a similar return on transit funding. In all, the $100 million bond is expected to leverage another $253 million in federal and other funds.

The one criticism is that the total is far from what’s needed. The DOT estimates that even with the $100 million injection every year, the state’s unmet highway funding is at least $232 million annually.

Underfunding like that causes problems when it lasts for just a year. When it occurs over the better part of a decade, you’re left with poor roadways that are costly, in lost time and repair bills, to Maine drivers. And those roads will only deteriorate more, and get more congested.

Leaving us short is the fact that the gas tax, which funds road and bridge work, has not been changed for years at either the state or federal level, and it’s relative worth has fallen even more dramatically as vehicles get better gas mileage and more people drive cars that don’t use as much gas, or any at all.

Raising the gas tax has been a political non-starter, and it is regressive, hitting people who can’t afford it the hardest. In any case, the gas tax will continue to lose power as more people adopt the electric vehicles we need in wide use to reduce fossil fuel emissions.

On the same point, it doesn’t make much sense to penalize electric vehicles now, just as the fight against climate change makes their adoption necessary.

In response to the climate crisis and our housing shortage, our transportation system must go through much-needed changes, including broad electrification and more public transit. It needs more funding, but it also must consider our transportation needs holistically; it’s not enough to throw hundreds of millions of dollars every year at a system built on the old way of doing things.

Maine needs safe, solid roads and bridges. But it also needs to change the way its residents get around, from our carbon-centric system now to something much different in the decades ahead.

A different day is coming for our transportation system, and we can’t do things the same way as always.

 

 


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