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Statehouse Report: Legislators take on transportation

Budgets, bonds, public-private partnerships, tolling and a sales tax on motor fuel highlight the transportation issues receiving the attention of the first session of the 126th Maine Legislature.

By John Melrose
 
With the legislative session moving into the final stretch, the Transportation Committee was on the job holding hearings on all of the 106 bills coming before them and reporting out of committee most of those bills by mid-May. Still, some heavy lifting lay ahead with the Highway Fund budget, which was officially unveiled on May 14, a relatively late start for the transportation budget process.
 
As Maine Trails was going to press, there has been no action from the Appropriations Committee on 30 general fund bond proposals including several relating to transportation investment. MBTA’s focus is on LD 942, a $120 million transportation bond sponsored by Transportation Committee Co-Chair Senator Ed Mazurek.
 
Of interest also to MBTA, is Governor LePage’s proposed transportation bond of $100 million, sponsored by Senator Pat Flood as LD 1095. There are many similarities between the two proposals but the big difference is that LD 942 invests $17 million more in highway rehabilitation and reconstruction. Bridge investment is set at $31 million in LD 942 and $30 million in LD 1095. Both bonds fund marine, rail, aviation and transit investments. LD 942 also sets aside funding of $1.5 million for pedestrian and bicycle facilities.
 
The committee voted down an $80 million GARVEE (grant anticipation revenue vehicle) bond proposal sponsored by Senator Mazurek (LD 492) and advanced by MBTA. Still, a GARVEE may come up again during budget negotiations. The GARVEE and general obligation funds together would help fulfill the legislature’s commitment to improve more than 300 miles of Priority 1 and 2 highways to fair or better condition by 2022. Priority 1 and 2 highways represent only 11 percent of all public roads but they carry 53 percent of all the traffic in Maine.
 
Taking Up the Budget
 
LD 1480, the proposed Highway Fund budget for the upcoming biennium, was heard on May 14. MBTA testified in support of the budget, but encouraged the Transportation Committee to do more. A primary motivation behind MBTA’s support is that, for the first time, the budget complies with the requirements of the Maine Constitution by properly allocating the cost of the State Police between the Highway Fund and the General Fund. This correction releases roughly $15 million in the biennium to support transportation.
 
This change takes on added importance given the recent Highway Fund revenue reforecast which downgraded 2014/2015 revenues by roughly $7.8 million. This downgrade was not known when the budget was prepared.
 
The budget also funds a 600-mile annual rate of maintenance paving. While MBTA recognizes that this treatment is minimal and short lived, it is essential if the state is unwilling to commit to more substantive improvements to the thousands of miles of substandard state aid highways now under MaineDOT jurisdiction. Not so long ago, the legislature was unwilling to even commit to a sufficient maintenance paving program.
 
This proposed budget provides the most comprehensive presentation ever of funding for all modes. The budget bill gives a much more comprehensive budgetary view and allows the Transportation Committee a better opportunity to appreciate the relative benefits to be realized with an expenditure in one mode or the other.
 
MBTA takes exception to Part D of the proposed budget that would redefine “capital investment” for the use of funds set aside in the Maine Municipal Bond Bank from 10 years to just five. MBTA believes “capital” should remain defined as investments having a useful life of at least 10 years. The legislature has twice before defeated this idea, and in its testimony, MBTA urged them to do so again.
 
It is important to note that MaineDOT’s recently released three-year work plan assumes $151.5 million in general obligation bonding. That includes the $51.5 million bond passed by voters last year and the $100 million transportation bond proposed by Governor LePage earlier this year. (See the Work Plan charts for plan details or visit www.MaineDOT.gov.)

 

Toll Increases, East-West Highway
 
While MBTA typically focuses on transportation finance matters during the legislative session, the organization’s board and leadership closely follow other issues of interest. This session, a host of bills were generated by the recent MTA toll increases. In the end, none of the worrisome aspects of these bills passed.
 
Similarly, many bills were introduced regarding the much-discussed east-west highway and relating to public-private partnerships. Again, the bills of greatest concern to MBTA were defeated or amended to remove concerns.
 
The Taxation Committee defeated Representative Ann People’s LD 614, that would transition a portion of the per gallon motor fuel excise tax to a retail sales tax. MBTA hoped this bill could be used as a vehicle for generating new Highway Fund revenue. Virginia and Maryland have passed similar measures this year that are expected to increase those states’ transportation revenues considerably.
 

As in other legislative sessions, the funding issues of most interest to MBTA members will be taken up by the legislature at the end of the session, scheduled to adjourn on June 19. Time will tell if the pressing issues of the session, including paying back hospitals, the General Fund and Highway Fund budgets and the bond issues will be resolved by then.

 

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