AUGUSTA – Roadside signs warning of repairs ahead are a sure sign of spring, but a newly released study is calling for a lot more road repair and reconstruction. The annual national study shows a dramatic drop in Maine’s ranking from 2001 to 2003, from 12th in the nation to 27th.
“That’s a big jump,” David Hartgen, professor of transportation studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte said last week. “The rural primary system in Maine is not that long, but it is very important. That’s the Route 2s and the Route 1s and that system is weakening in condition.”
The report, based on 2003 data, found that more than 20 miles of that system has deteriorated to poor condition when none of the 786-mile system had been ranked poor in 2001.
“That’s going to be very hard to make up,” Hartgen said. “I realize Maine’s economy is not in great shape, but they have to make these basic investments.”
He is the author of the annual study of how all the states compare in the management of highway spending to assure adequate roads and bridges. He visits the state regularly and lived in Orono for several years where his late father, Vincent Hartgen, was a well-known art professor.
“This is a report that we take seriously,” Commissioner of Transportation David Cole said last week. “We did get among the highest scores in the country for how we handle our money.”
Hartgen agreed, but said that using resources wisely does not overcome the lack of resources. He said Maine needs to invest more in its highways and bridges or it will fall further behind.
“We have a lot more miles of road, about 8,400, than other New England states,” Cole said, “but we do not get any more federal funds than New Hampshire that has something less than half the miles we have.”
Even with a tight budget, Cole said Maine will be able to match all the available federal funds this year. But, key lawmakers on the Legislature’s Transportation Committee said it may no longer be enough too simply raise enough state funds to match available federal funds.
“Necessity being the mother of invention and being that tool that moves us off the dime is not a bad thing,” Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Hancock, said Friday. “We must find other ways to fund our roads and bridges. I look at this very seriously.”
Damon said Maine cannot take for granted that federal funds will meet the state’s needs. He said the Hartgen study indicates the state is slipping when it should be reducing the backlog of road repair, reconstruction and overhaul throughout the state.
“We’re going to have to bite the bullet,” Sen. Christine Savage, R-Knox, said Friday. “We are going to have to do more and I think we need to do more bonding as a start.”
She has served on the Transportation Committee for eight years and said the state has struggled to find the funds needed for highways and bridges. She said the law that indexes the fuel tax every year is not even keeping pace with increased costs.
“We are just treading water,” she said. “We are passing bonds to invest in all these high-tech areas, but what good will it do if we can’t get there from here. Our highways are key to all our economic development efforts.”
Damon agreed. He said a study under way by DOT to develop other revenue sources for highways and bridges is very important. He said with more fuel-efficient vehicles, the main source of funds for roads, the fuel taxes, will continue to generate fewer dollars.
“We need to look at everything,” Gov. John Baldacci said Friday. “We need to look to innovations, including mass transportation as the state continues to grow. We need to look to rail particularly where we already have a corridor.”
He said the state will be looking at what sort of fees or taxes will be needed as the fuel tax generates less money. He said toll roads and bridges should be explored as well.
“I think there is the opportunity for private investment and partnerships to work with state and federal partners,” he said.
Over the next three years, Baldacci said the passage of his transportation bond issue is crucial to preventing the state from slipping further behind in addressing the state’s highway needs.
“We did not have a bond issue last year,” he said, “this bond is crucial for the future of our state.”
Both Damon and Savage agreed and pointed out the committee is recommending nearly double the bonding for highways and bridges as proposed by Baldacci. The governor proposed $15.7 million and the committee recommended $30.7 million.
“It is disturbing when we are slipping,” Damon said. “We are not doing enough and we need to do more.”