The $1 billion question
PACTS legislative briefing raises questions of General Fund support, bonding and priorities
The problem is in many ways a simple one, according to Senator Bill Diamond (D-Cumberland) speaking at a legislative briefing on the region’s transportation system, December 14 at Ocean Gateway in Portland. “Nobody wants bad roads, but nobody wants to raise the gas tax to fix them,” said Diamond.
This was the third time PACTS (Portland Area Comprehensive Transit System) has brought together community and legislative leaders to talk transportation, and discussion soon zeroed in on the issue that many in the room felt was the most challenging barrier: how to maintain and improve the region’s transportation system. Finding the money to do so would help the 15 communities that form the PACTS study region cope with issues from congestion and mobility to economic development.
Diamond, who sits on the Maine Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation, was one of three legislators who spoke at the event. Senator Ronald F. Collins (R-York), one of the committee’s two chairs, and committee member Representative Ann E. Peoples (D-Westbrook) also addressed an audience of approximately 80 residents, local elected officials, transportation service providers and fellow legislators.
Nathan Poore, Falmouth town manager and chair of the PACTS Policy Committee talked about the “cumbersome and complex process” of planning and funding transportation projects. PACTS Director John Duncan introduced the PACTS members that were present and talked about the planning organization’s efforts to identity new sources of funding and to develop new ways to prioritize and pay for critical transportation projects.
Duncan mentioned how it is commonly believed that the federal government pays for local projects out of gas tax revenue in the Highway Trust Fund, but he said that has fallen in recent decades, and federal contributions now represent only 28 percent of transportation funding in the region.
Duncan said it is getting to the point where “we can no longer hope the federal government is going to pay for everything.” He talked of local efforts to fill the gap through increased municipal funding and other sources for improvements to a 200-mile network of collector roads and other transportation systems, including the region’s aging fleet of public transit buses.
Senator Collins outlined the efforts of the Transportation Committee to secure alternative funding during the previous legislative session to address state and federal gas tax revenues that have failed to keep up with the state’s transportation needs. Collins noted that while most states contribute General Fund monies for transportation at a level of 17 percent, Maine’s General fund support is less consistent and falls well short of that level. Collins said that the Transportation Committee had worked with Governor LePage’s office “to create a partnership between the Highway Fund and the General Fund, because the Highway Fund can’t stand alone.”
Collins detailed how there was a promise of $20 million in General Fund revenues, but that support fell by the wayside as other demands for funding took precedence at the legislature.
That transportation too often takes a backseat in Augusta is a major part of the problem, according to Senator Diamond.
“What strikes me the most is what a well-kept secret the Highway Fund budget is to the legislature,” Diamond said. Typically, legislators don’t even begin to debate the transportation budget until after almost all the other legislative business is complete and the General Fund budget is set.
“The problem is transportation is an afterthought,” said Diamond.
Representative Peoples saw the issue as a problem of public perception. She compared the state’s transportation system to a grand old Victorian that has been too long neglected. She said the impressive front porch and entrance hall are like the Maine Turnpike. But when you get to the second floor, it’s like Cumberland Street – full of potholes.
“You can see the sills are rotten, and that is kind of the way our infrastructure is,” said Peoples.
During the question-and-answer session, local residents raised their concerns: about how cuts in Mainecare would affect transit operations in the PACTS area; the need for a Works Project Administration-type investment in infrastructure to create jobs and stimulate the economy; the prospects for investment in commuter rail; and questions about the efficacy of the gas tax.
Legislators also provided opinions on several other issues. Senator Collins called for an end to transportation earmarks and for the federal government to turn over spending decisions to state departments of transportation. “Who better to make those spending decisions?” said Collins.
Senator Diamond said he had been concerned that the legislature could not agree on sending a transportation bond to voters in the last session and said he would work toward such a measure in the coming session, because otherwise roads and bridges would suffer. “If we [legislators] leave this session without a bond, then we will face the consequences,” said Diamond. He also voiced his support for refurbishing the Mountain Division rail line. Representative Peoples urged those present to take their concerns about transportation to a wider audience.
“We’re preaching to the choir here,” said Peoples. “I want you to know we hear you, and we will do our very best to make sure we move forward.”
John Duncan, PACTS director, agreed.
“What we’ve got to do is talk to our friends and family and neighbors about this,” said Duncan, noting that, only with growing public awareness and support, would area residents be able to transform the region’s ailing transportation system for the future.