No time to rest on our laurels. We have achieved so much, but now more than ever, we need to continue the push for a solution to the transportation funding crisis
By Lauren Corey, MBTA President
In normal times, this would be a time for celebration and optimism. This spring, voters passed a record transportation bond of $113 million, and a strong majority in both houses of Maine’s legislature voted to pass LD 1790: “An Act to Secure Maine’s Transportation Future”. MBTA members worked hard for both measures, talking with their legislators and encouraging family, co-workers, neighbors and friends to support the bond. But these have not been normal times. That record bond barely gives MaineDOT the resources they need to recover from two years of underfunding and intense inflationary pressures that increased the cost of highway construction materials by more than 30 percent. And while the passage of LD 1790 has been a major achievement, the bill was stripped of its funding measures before it was passed and is still sitting on Governor Baldacci’s desk, waiting to be signed. We also have had a tragic reminder of how much more needs to be done.
The collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, where 13 commuters died, reminded us of how important it will be to address Maine’s own sizable backlog of 288 defi cient bridges in need of repair or replacement. This fall, our work to shine the spotlight on the crisis has continued. The MBTA board and staff have continued our discussions with legislators and MaineDOT and are working toward solutions to these challenges. While we have done a great deal to educate everyone involved about the need, these are diffi cult times for anyone seeking state or federal funding.
The competition for public dollars is very high, as is the push to lower the tax burden. The challenge of balancing state funding priorities is at the heart of one transportation funding study currently underway in the legislature. The Committee to Study Appropriate Funding of the State Police is reviewing the Highway Fund support of the Maine State Police. This study follows an Offi ce of Program Evaluation & Government Accountability (OPEGA) report released in early 2007 that found the Highway Fund was paying between $13.5 – $20 million too much for transportation-related enforcement activities. MBTA has testifi ed in support of a more equitable funding equation for the Maine State Police that could free up millions of dollars more every year for highway and bridge maintenance and other transportation priorities. This isn’t about reducing the State Police budget, because they need every dollar they are allocated; rather, it is about ensuring that the Highway Fund only pays for those functions that have to do with transportation, as required by the Maine’s Constitution.
A second legislative study of Maine’s fuel tax is underway. Legislators are exploring whether it would make sense to convert a portion of the motor fuel tax from a flat, pergallon fee to a sales tax that would rise and fall with the price of fuel. MBTA is working with legislators, the MaineDOT and other industry groups to evaluate this funding option. One way to minimize the impact of such a move would be to reduce the state’s fuel tax at the same time. Maine’s citizens, legislators and executive leadership are faced with some difficult choices.
The option of raising new revenue to fund the highway and bridge crisis is clearly unpopular. The path of least resistance is to fail to act, to delay what needs to be done. When a tragedy such as the I-35W bridge failure occurs in Maine, will the path we choose be a choice we are willing to stand behind?
I suggest that we consider these choices seriously and move forward with the one that will withstand the test of integrity. MBTA will be calling on all of our membership to help advocate for increased funding for our highways, bridges, air, rail and ports in the coming months. I hope you will watch your e-mail for our MBTA Updates and take time to contact your local legislators on these issues. As we know from this past spring, your support and involvement helps make our message heard! It was great to see so many of you at the MBTA events this fall, including the Fall Convention and the 11th Transportation Achievement Awards. We have several events planned for coming months, and I hope to see you there, as well. Best wishes to you and your families this holiday season.