Maine roads are deteriorating faster than they can be fully repaired; like all states, it faces rapidly rising costs for pavement; and its fuel tax revenues, dedicated to the Highway Fund, are expected to continue a slow decline. This situation, highlighted by the recent news that the fund is $3.7 million below estimates over the first two months of the year, prompted Transportation Committee member Christine Savage of Union to conclude, “We are going to have to find another source of revenue, and that is not going to be easy.” Right on both counts.
Last January, a University of Maine study on sustainable transportation funding provided numerous options – none of which would be popular. Those choices include local option transportation taxes, congestion pricing, a per-mile charge, an added tax on heavy vehicles, adding variability to registration fees and an emissions fee. (This is a rare circumstance where no fiscally conservative lawmaker had yet to suggest Maine look more like New Hampshire, which has 25 percent fewer miles of highway than Maine.)
Whether revenues are slightly up or slightly down at the beginning of this fiscal year is not important. Lawmakers should be focused on long-term trends, going back decades in which Maine has eroded the share of the budget for highways, and looking forward based on sobering projections of fuel-tax revenues. As an unwelcome bonus, nothing better than this situation highlights the narrow perch of Maine taxes, unsteadily clinging to the continued sales and use of automobiles.
Finding another source of revenue means re-examining the source of costs -highway wear-and-tear, pollution generated – and further establishing priorities that take a second look and give greater weight to the value of the roads being maintained. These decisions produce political peril for lawmakers who need to deliver road repair for their districts, but the alternative, absent the willingness of the public to spend considerably more, is a general degradation of the entire system.
Use taxes are popular because they directly connect the need for an expenditure to a source of revenue, and to some extent a use tax provides fairness – and an opportunity to assign a cost to, for instance, air pollution. But it misses the general benefit to Maine of a well-maintained highway system. For one thing, a use tax begs the question of why a tax generated in a populated part of the state should be applied to roads in a lightly traveled part. Maine may do better to let roads stand beside schools and health care in the General Fund line so that lawmakers may set priorities based on the total set of expenditures.
Short-term, this means some programs will lose out. Long-term, the pot-holed road leads to larger questions about spending, forcing Maine to confront its budgeting habits, to re-examine what it can afford and re-consider how deeply the public values specific services of state government.