126th Maine Legislature
By John Melrose, MBTA Senior Policy Analyst
The good news for the legislative session that just ended is that matters relating to transportation finance did not get worse. Unlike the difficulties experienced with the General Fund, the Highway Fund supplemental budget was neither contentious nor difficult to enact. The biggest unforeseen challenges for the budget writers in the second session of the 126th was to provide an increase to municipalities for local road assistance of roughly $640,000 over the current and next fiscal year. It also appeared to secure the state's commitment to “light capital paving” of 600 miles per year. The budget further solidified Maine's commitment to finance its share of the estimated $172 million replacement cost for the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge at Kittery-Portsmouth. Both Maine and New Hampshire plan to use federal grant anticipation revenue vehicle (GARVEE) bonds to partially finance the bridge replacement. In addition, MaineDOT is authorized under this budget to sell the lower 1.9 miles of I-95 to the Maine Turnpike Authority for $30 million to further fund the bridge replacement.
The Maine Legislature enacted the Maine Turnpike Authority (MTA)budget as requested by the authority. This budget raises $41.2 million for operations, $30 million for the reserve maintenance fund, nearly $36 million for debt service and just over $24 million for capital improvements at new interchanges. At the recommendation of the MTA and MaineDOT, the legislature also moved the state toward compliance with Federal interstate signage standards.
In other action, the legislature, in L.D. 1817: An Act To Amend the Law Concerning the State Cost-share Program for Salt and Sand Storage Facilities, set an end date and close-out process for state financial participation in sand/salt storage facilities. In L.D. 1076: An Act To Provide a Mechanism To Allow Certain Commercial Motor Vehicle Weight Limits and Vehicle Dimension Standards To Be Exceeded in Order To Promote Economic Development while Ensuring Public Safety, they broadened the allowance for overweight and over-dimension loads on the state highway system under special conditions and financing requirements. The legislature passed, but the governor vetoed L.D. 1365: An Act to Promote New Models of Mobility and Access to Transportation. An Act to Improve the Accuracy of Fuel Tax Reporting, LD 996, died on the Special Highway Fund Table when the legislature adjourned. If passed, the loss of revenue to the Highway Fund would have been $535,000 per year. After a tortuous set of deliberations, the legislature's Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee gave up on L.D. 965: An Act To Improve Maine's Underground Facility Damage Prevention Program and efforts to alter Maine's Current Dig Safe Laws.
Last year, the legislature sent to the voters and the voters approved a $100 million transportation General Fund, general obligation bond. The proposed bond was similar to a bond proposal supported by MBTA. It was not expected that the legislature would take up another transportation bond this year. However, late in the session, the Appropriations Committee convened to address more than 30 bond proposals before them. The committee killed most of those proposals, but held several for further consideration including L.D. 942: An Act To Authorize a General Fund Bond Issue To Invest in Deficient State Highways, Bridges and Aviation, Marine, Rail and Transit Facilities, a bond proposal sponsored by Transportation Committee Co-Chairman Senator Mazurek and developed by MBTA. In the end, this bond, and all of the others relating to transportation, died, including a recently filed proposal to purchase the Bar Harbor Ferry Terminal.
Noteworthy by its absence this legislative session was any initiative to address the anemic condition of the Highway Fund. With the repeal of motor fuel tax indexing by the prior legislature, Maine's gas tax now has slipped below the national average. The diesel tax rate is now just at the national average. The proponents for repealing indexing promised a bold alternative to place the Highway Fund on a solid footing. No such proposal has arrived on the scene. Meanwhile, federal inaction continues into a third decade regarding any adjustment to the federal motor fuel tax. Other states are not sitting idle waiting for relief from Washington. They realize they have the authority to fix this problem and they are doing so.
When will Maine legislative leaders realize this as well and take action? We are now moving into election season, and this is a fair question to ask of the candidates.
EDITOR'S NOTE: MBTA would like to say “thank you” to four experienced Maine legislators leaving the Transportation Committee: Chair Senator Ed Mazurek, who is retiring; fellow chair Representative Ken Theriault, who is running for the Maine Senate; and Representatives Ann Peoples and Bob Nutting who are leaving the legislature due to term limits. We wish you all well as you move on to new chapters in your professional, public and personal lives.