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Maine Conference: Transportation Needs Falling Victim to Washington Gridlock
12/05/2013   Reported By: Mal Leary

The theme of the annual Maine Transportation Conference this year was transportation trends of the future. But the gridlock in Congress worries transportation advocates and officials. As Mal Leary reports, they say in the not too distant future they will need to find new ways to fund roads and bridges, ports and airports.

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For decades, the per gallon tax on fuel has been the major funding source for transportation improvements. That is changing. Cars and trucks are more fuel efficient and fuel tax revenues have not kept pace with the need for repairs and replacement of roads and bridges, or the increasing costs of steel and asphalt used in repairs or construction.

Speaking at a transportation conference in Augusta, consultant Cynthia Burbank said new ways must be found to pay for needed transportation infrastructure.

"The Congress and the president, hopefully, will figure that out, but it is not a very good climate for a bipartisan agreement on a way to raise additional revenues - even for something as important as transportation," Burbank said.

Maine Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt says Congress needs to act in 2014 or states will face serious funding issues. That's because a significant part of the state transportation budget depends on federal grants. He is hopeful a solution will be reached, based on past actions by Congress.

"Right about the time when it gets to the point where it's, you know, it's almost like, 'Oh my gosh, we are not going to have any money,' they find a way," Bernhardt says. "And, coming up in a year, from a transportation perspective, they are going to have to find a way or we will go off the cliff."

Bernhardt says like many other states, Maine is too small to take on an alternative funding mechanism, such as imposing fees for actual miles driven, because it's so complicated and typically requires federal involvement. He says Oregon is currently running a pilot fee project based on miles a vehicle is driven.

"They are doing the testing, and they are getting it down to somewhere where other states may be able to use that - that might be one of the things that we end up doing in Maine," Bernhartdt says. "Tolling probably will be very difficult because we don't have - we don't have the mass, we don't have the vehicles. We are already tolling the most busiest highway in the state."

Bernhardt says tolling would not make sense in rural areas like Aroostook County because the toll revenue would likely not even be enough to pay for the toll collection system. He says new user-fee-based revenues are needed, but Maine would be hard pressed to move forward on one without the federal government taking the lead.

Maria Fuentes, executive director of the Maine Better Transportation Association, says Congress needs to act on alternative funding sources, but she says that's something Maine's congressional delegation understands.

"The states have been forced to do more on their own; we can't do it entirely on our own," Fuentes says. "So we've got - you know, I think if other state delegations were more like Maine's and some of the other more rational ones, but that is really not the case down there, and we are very concerned."

Fuentes is convinced Maine cannot solve its transportation needs without significant federal assistance. She fears the backlog of needed repairs and improvements will continue to grow as Congress remains mired in gridlock.

Like other federal programs, transportation funding is being provided to the states under a continuing resolution, not an actual budget. The current spending levels were made as part of the compromise that ended the partial government shutdown in October, but that spending authority runs out next month, on Jan. 15.


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