AUGUSTA — Early brainstorming by the Transportation Committee Tuesday for ways to fund the maintenance of Maine roads led repeatedly back to some of the same ideas that have already been rejected by lawmakers from both parties.
At the core of the question is whether to add to the state’s gasoline tax, utilize money set aside for long-term capital projects or find additional cuts in the Department of Transportation. There were no easy answers.
The Legislature, in the final days of the session that ended June 13, rejected several proposals to raise taxes on gasoline in order to pay for the maintenance of state roads. As one of its final actions of the session, it enacted a Highway Fund budget that includes $5 million for maintenance of about 230 miles of road in fiscal year 2010 and none in 2011. Through some budgetary maneuvering, the $5 million came from a transportation capital fund that is designated for long-term projects, not maintenance paving.
The goal is to find a way to fund an ongoing program of maintaining the 8,400 miles of state roads in Maine at a rate of about 600 miles per year, which will cost approximately $25 million annually.
Sen. Dennis Damon (D-Hancock County), Senate chairman of the Transportation Committee, said he has been approached repeatedly since the Legislature adjourned by people who want better roads. Other committee members said they had heard similar pleas.
“The people out there, when we got out from under the dome, are looking for a solution,” said Damon, who passionately opposed taking the $5 million out of the transportation capital account. “This is about our economy. I’m not interested in revisiting history. What I am interested in is that we move toward a solution to this.”
Committee members offered a range of ideas, from finding efficiencies in MDOT to downgrading the standards for Maine roads. Some suggested charging tolls on more of the interstates or using more transportation capital money as collateral for borrowing, but the discussion kept returning to the fuel tax.
Rep. Douglas Thomas (R-Ripley) has been one of the most vocal opponents on the committee of a tax increase.
“If we come up with a solution at this meeting, it’s going to be to increase taxes and that’s not where I can feel comfortable,” said Thomas. “If there is some kind of a tax increase I hope we can set that money aside so it can’t be raided
Rep. Charles Harlow (D-Portland) favors a fuel tax increase.
“We’ve got to raise the money somehow,” he said. “I’m 100 percent for the tax.”
Damon said any proposal for a substantial tax increase would probably suffer the same fate as did previous proposals to do so.
“If we come forward with a tax bill that raises taxes in an election year, it’s dead on arrival,” he said.
Sen. Joseph Perry (D-Penobscot County) suggested that maybe Maine’s network of roadways is simply too extensive to maintain with available resources. Rep. Ann Peoples (D-Westbrook) agreed based on the premise that the consumption of gasoline will decline as society finds new forms of transportation.
“We are so far from sustainability in terms of what’s coming in for fuel taxes,” she said. “Unless we can come up with some really new ideas, we’re doomed and it’s not going to be just maintenance paving.”
Committee member vowed to reach out to constituents and other lawmakers for ideas about how to solve the problem and come back with ideas at a meeting tentatively scheduled for Aug. 11.