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Silver bullet eludes transportation committee

Impasse continues despite funding talks

What will fix the current transportation funding shortfall is a question – and answer – that has eluded efforts of the Maine Legislature’s Transportation Committee of late. The 13 legislators that sit on the committee met twice this summer to address the issue and discussed various scenarios – including a possible increase to the state fuel tax. Still, the second meeting in August concluded without consensus or recommendations from the committee. Members of the committee have said they plan to revisit funding talks as the legislature gears up for the 2010 legislative session.
 
The summer meetings of the Transportation Committee had been proposed during the final hours of the 2009 legislative session. The Maine House and Senate had been unable to agree to a funding Band-Aid for the state maintenance surface treatment (MST) program that had been cut drastically this spring.
 
During the regular legislative session, several bills had been proposed – each calling for various increases in the state gas tax. All failed to pass under pressure from Republicans who were wary of raising taxes. Additionally, Governor John Baldacci had threatened to veto any tax increase unless it had strong bipartisan support.
 
Raising the fuel tax was the chief funding mechanism discussed during the summer meetings. Maine motorists currently pay 29.5 cents per gallon in state fuel tax for gasoline and 30.7 cents for diesel. Fuel tax revenues had decreased during the past year – partially because dramatic price increases at the pump in 2008 had caused a historic decline in vehicle miles traveled. The decline in gas tax revenues continued into 2009, even as gas prices began to fall from their 2009 high, due to a deep recession that hit the region and the country.
To make revenue matters worse, Mainers have continued to seek more fuel-efficient vehicles. That, according to MaineDOT, has contributed even more to the recent decline in fuel tax revenues than gas prices – and promises to continue creating downward pressure on revenues.
 
Fuel tax revenue shortfalls caused MaineDOT to cancel 75 percent of its 2010-2011 MST paving program. And with the prospect of declining revenues for fiscal year 2010, the legislature reduced the proposed transportation bond from $127.8 million to $72 million, disappointing both highway advocates and rail, transit and marine users. “This is a hard period for transportation,” a clearly discouraged Transportation Committee House Chair Edward J. Mazurek (D-Rockland) told Maine Trails at the close of the special session. “The budget we passed is bare bones and less than the year before.”
 
Mazurek sees the highway funding struggle faced by the 124th Maine Legislature as indicative of a longer term funding issue. “The present method of relying on the gas tax is not working. The gap is widening between what we can afford and what we need to do,” said Mazurek.
 
One bright spot came in August when the state announced that July gas tax revenues posted $1.3 million – or 7.6 percent – higher than anticipated. Motor vehicle registration fees, a portion of which are used for bridge repair, also showed a 25 percent gain after a long decline, in large part because of the federal “Cash for Clunkers” program devised to stimulate flagging automobile sales. Many anticipate auto sales will fall off significantly now that the program has ended. It is unclear why July fuel tax revenues were higher than anticipated; it may be a timing issue relative to reporting receipts.

Senator Dennis Damon (D-Hancock), who co-chairs the Transportation Committee with Rep. Mazurek, was cautiously optimistic about the increasing transportation revenues in an interview with the Capitol News Service: “Overall, I would have to say that the analysis for the first month of the fiscal year – July, that is – is positive. Let’s see if we can’t tack a few of these together back-to-back, and see if we can come out of where we are, because it was in a pretty terrible place.”
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