MBTA’s Maria Fuentes talks about transportation with Senator Edward Mazurek (D-Knox County) and Representative Charles ‘Ken’ Theriault (D-Madawaska), chairs of the 126th Maine Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Transportation.
Maria Fuentes: When your constituents talk to you about transportation, what do they most often talk you about?
Senator Mazurek: Roads. When constituents travel to work, to the grocery store or to their kids’ school on roads covered in potholes and frost heaves, they know what it is doing to their vehicles. They don’t care that some roads are maintained by the state and some by the town, they just know that they need to be fixed.
Representative Theriault: Basically, it is always the condition of the roads. We may not have as many roads in Aroostook County as others and we don’t have an interstate, and I certainly do hear about that. However, MaineDOT has fixed U.S. Route 1 between Grand Isle and Keegan, and I have been getting a lot of kudos on that. It used to have a “ski jump” on it and truckers were very concerned because they would get pulled to the side. The other thing would be your port of entry – the bridge between Madawaska and Edmunston, New Brunswick – it is the second busiest port in the state and it is not getting any attention.
Fuentes: The Maine Legislature identified 19 percent of all public roads as the highest priority roads, because they carry 70 percent of all traffic. Of those roads, 1,472 miles or 34 percent are in poor or unacceptable condition. The Legislature agreed to bring these roads up to at least fair condition. What would be a reasonable time frame for meeting this commitment?
Senator Mazurek: If we’re being honest, with the current level of funding they won’t all be fixed. We don’t have the money to maintain roads at current condition, let alone bring them all up to fair condition. We need to address the funding gap. One of the bills I introduced this session is to form a commission to specifically look at the funding of our transportation infrastructure and what we need to do to ensure long-term sufficient funding for maintenance and improvement projects.
Representative Theriault: We should probably be looking in 10-year time frames since it will probably take at least that. The funding for roads and infrastructure is just inadequate – it is not getting any better.
Fuentes: According to national statistics, the performance of Maine’s State Highway System has slipped from 15th in the nation to 32nd in the last decade. One in every six Maine bridges is considered structurally deficient. MaineDOT says they need another $150 million a year in capital funding to reverse these statistics. Where should this funding come from?
Senator Mazurek: As the saying goes, bridges are like people. They have a life span of roughly 80 years. It is now 2013 and about 80 years ago the federal government was pumping money into highway and bridge projects nationwide. Now, we have a growing number of bridges in need of repair. We need to prioritize fixing existing infrastructure, but even so the current gap in funding is not acceptable. At the end of the day our funding sources are limited and those who use the roads will have to pay for their maintenance. No one wants to raise tolls, but the other option is closing roads and bridges when they become unsafe.
Representative Theriault: This is the question of all questions. Our main source of funding is the gas tax, and that is unable to keep us afloat. As we all know, the better mileage with the cars being more efficient is hurting us a great deal. The other thing that is very troublesome is the cost of maintaining the roads and bridges and certainly, the cost of building new roads is astronomical. We have a number of things working against us, and one of our goals should be to find alternative funding sources. Maybe we should be looking at vehicle miles traveled – something for the future.
Fuentes: Federal fuel taxes have not been raised since 1993 and the federal highway trust fund is no longer self-sufficient. One underlying issue is whether it is best to support transportation with user fees or rely on general funds. What is your philosophy on this issue?
Senator Mazurek: My philosophy is that the old funding sources will not be sufficient and we have to look at fresh ideas for funding. User fees should be seriously looked at, and I feel that the more you use our roads the more you should pay for them.
Representative Theriault: From what I have read, the cost of transportation for our nation is $170 billion per year. The General Fund doesn’t have the money to take care of its own responsibilities, such as revenue sharing, which is critical for all the towns in the state. Unfortunately, our roads and bridges need fixing, but the Highway Fund takes a back seat to the needs of the General Fund.
We may eventually have to move to strictly a user fee, perhaps something that can work with the new technologies.
Fuentes: The Highway Fund pays 49 percent of the State Police budget, even though the State Police only uses 33 percent of its time on transportation-related matters. The Governor’s Biennial Budget brings the percentage down to 33 percent, to reflect the actual time, as the constitution demands. Do you support this element of Governor LePage’s budget?
Senator Mazurek: We cannot slash the funding that the State Police receive from the Highway Fund without somehow making up for that loss. As long as the State Police budget remains whole, then I would support the shift.
Representative Theriault: The governor‘s budget wants to bring it down to 33 percent, and I would support that.
Fuentes: Do you support sending a transportation bond to the voters to fund highways, bridges, ports, buses, airports, rail and trails?
Senator Mazurek: Absolutely. In fact I have a bill in this session, LD 942, for a $120 million bond issue that, if approved by the legislature, would go to Maine voters. Not only would the revenue raised by the bonds contribute to significant infrastructure improvements, but it would be matched by another $173 million for additional improvements.
Furthermore, I believe it is imperative that the governor release the bonds that have already been approved by the people of Maine.
Representative Theriault: Yes. I always support transportation bonds; since voters make that decision, it puts them in the driver’s seat.
Fuentes: A grant anticipation revenue vehicle (GARVEE) bond for highways and bridge investment is financed exclusively through the commitment of future federal revenues. Under what circumstances do you think this is a good way to finance our needs?
Senator Mazurek: GARVEEs are a great source of funding for maintaining current and building new roads. In addition to the bond bill I previously mentioned, I have also submitted a bill to authorize a GARVEE bond this session.
Representative Theriault: I believe a GARVEE bond should go to something extraordinary, like when the ship got loose and damaged the bridge between Kittery and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. A GARVEE should go to a major artery or a major bridge that would cause the economy to suffer or commerce to suffer if we don’t have the finances to cover it. I would like GARVEEs used only for extraordinary projects and major needs.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Since this interview, the Transportation Committee voted to discuss a GARVEE bond only in the context of the Highway Fund budget.)
Fuentes: Poor roads cost more to Maine drivers in car repairs than they pay in state gas taxes. They also cause one-third of all vehicle accidents and limit the use by truckers of nearly 25 percent of all state roads during the spring thaw. What is the balance you would strike between paying to fix our roads and bridges and passing costs off onto users by not keeping the system in better repair?
Senator Mazurek: We do not have a choice. We either have to close roads and bridges or ask Mainers to contribute more to their repair. It is important to note that our infrastructure is key to our economic growth. No one wants to pay more, but if we have to close transportation corridors due to their poor condition, then the Maine economy will suffer, and make it harder on all Mainers.
Representative Theriault: Like I said, we should use GARVEES for more long-term projects, and save scarce tax dollars for shorter-term fixes.
Fuentes: Maine’s gas tax is set at 31.5 cents per gallon. A pickup truck getting 15 miles per gallon pays 2.1 cents to travel a mile, but a Prius getting 45 miles per gallon pays one-third that amount to travel a mile. How would you address this growing inequity built into the current motor fuel tax?
Senator Mazurek: Buying a vehicle is the consumer’s choice. If someone is concerned about the fuel costs and gas taxes associated with a pickup truck than perhaps they should consider switching to a Prius. It makes sense that those vehicles that emit more carbon and have a greater impact on our environment pay more in gas tax. It is an incentive for our motor vehicles owners to make better decisions for our environment.
Representative Theriault: This leads us back to the question about the user fee. One of the things that is hurting funding for transportation is the fact that cars are getting better mileage. What should replace that funding mechanism? That is a discussion we need to have.
Fuentes: The last legislature repealed motor fuel tax indexing. While income and sales taxes grow with inflation, now the motor fuel tax will not. Should this decision be revisited?
Senator Mazurek: I believe it should. Fuel tax indexing served a purpose. Not only does a dollar buy less over time with inflation, but the number of cars and trucks we have on our roads grows over time, too, which causes faster wear and tear to our infrastructure. This will exacerbate our funding challenges.
Representative Theriault: Some might say we need to raise the gas tax, but in my area, it would not be popular because the cost of fuel is 20 cents higher up north. If things don’t change and we don’t have a new user fee or something of that nature, we may be forced to look at fuel taxes again.
Fuentes: As we negotiate with New Hampshire over sharing the cost of bridge construction between our two states, do you think we should ask New Hampshire to pay for the cost of their residents using the Downeaster that Maine is presently financing?
Senator Mazurek: I do think we should ask New Hampshire to contribute to the costs of the Downeaster. I believe the popularity of public transportation, like the Downeaster, will grow over time, but because it serves a regional purpose, I think it is fair to expect them to contribute as well. I am going on 10 years on the Transportation Committee, and the reason Maine carries this burden still eludes me.
Representative Theriault: Yes, sure. Since many people in New Hampshire use the service, they should pay for part of the subsidies. That is only fair.
Fuentes: Maine made a major investment in saving freight rail service to Aroostook by entering into a public-private partnership. Are you encouraged with the results of this partnership so far?
Senator Mazurek: Generally speaking, I feel positive about the attention Maine is giving rail service. I think the results of this project are promising, and as I have said, I believe alternative modes of transportation, such as rail, are going to grow in popularity, and as they do, I expect this project will become even more appreciated.
Representative Theriault: Yes, absolutely. It has worked very well. I see it every time I leave the County to come down to Augusta. I see cars on the rails that I didn’t see previously. In some cases, the traffic has doubled and almost tripled. It was a great investment.
Fuentes: Beyond highway investments what are your priorities for improving passenger and freight transportation?
Senator Mazurek: We have to improve service, we must demand adherence to departure and arrival times and on consistent schedules and availability for all rail service.
Representative Theriault: Passenger transportation: we are looking at trying to work on a section of rail between Portland and Brunswick. Perhaps the next area would be to extend passenger rail to Auburn. For freight, the bigger need seems to be in connecting rail to businesses.
Fuentes: What do you most hope to accomplish this session? What priority issues will you urge the committee to take up this session?
Senator Mazurek: My goal this session is to find a way to maintain our transportation infrastructure at its current level and to prevent further deterioration of their condition. This means I want to see more maintenance and repair being done as our roads and bridges age, and that ultimately means we have to increase funding. There is not one answer to fixing our infrastructure, but if we don’t, we know it will have a negative impact on the economy.
Representative Theriault: It is my goal just to keep ourselves afloat. We are just hanging on, hoping that at some point, when we get the budget, which is extremely important, we will be in better financial shape. Of course, we need to pass a balanced budget. Regarding priority issues, a lot of issues that we have had are safety related, like the use of cell phones and our speed limits. My priorities are really to make sure that we maintain our infrastructure to the best that we can, given the limited resources that we have, from one end of the state to the other – wherever it is most needed.
If there were one project I could get done, it would be the border crossing in Madawaska. We should figure out a way to export more of our Maine products, which means we must have efficient border crossings. We are in the midst of repairing one in Van Buren, which is important for commerce, and it is getting a lot of attention, even though it is not our busiest port. And finally, an extension of I-95 is long overdue, from Houlton to Presque Isle, at least.
FMI: Watch for interviews with other Transportation Committee interview in future issues of Maine Trails.