AUGUSTA – Maine’s highway ranking improved from 2003 to 2004 in the latest annual study of the nation’s roads and bridges, but recent budget problems may have undermined that progress.
“Maine bounced back in this study,” said David Hartgen, professor of transportation studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, author on the annual study of how all the states compare in the management of highway spending to assure adequate roads and bridges.
“Maine dropped in the last survey. In this survey it improved from 27th in the nation to 17th, but all of this data is from last year and does not capture any of the effects all the states have faced from increased costs,” Hartgen said.
Maine had been 12th in the national ranking in 2002, dropping to 27th in 2003. Hartgen said the swings are not the result of what the state has been doing, but of its relative position when compared to other states.
“Maine has some long-standing problems for not investing enough in its highway infrastructure,” he said. “This latest increase in costs of asphalt and other building supplies is not only hurting Maine, it’s hurting all states.”
Hartgen visits Maine regularly, most recently last weekend, and lived in Orono for several years where his late father, Vincent Hartgen, was a well-known art professor at the University of Maine.
Maine Transportation Commissioner David Cole said the annual study by Hartgen is “the standard” by which states are measured. He said he was particularly pleased with Maine’s 10th-best ranking in the country for its efficient use of resources.
“We have 1.3 million people in this state supporting 8,300 miles of roads and an inventory of about 2,700 bridges,” Cole said. “It is a challenge to keep up the level of repairs, maintenance and rehabilitation that is needed.”
Cole believes the state will lose some ground in the next ranking because the state had to delay $130 million in projects in 2005 and 2006 because of the sharp increase in costs and nearly flat revenues.
“We saw just phenomenal increases in costs,” he said. “We had some items doubling in cost and we had no additional revenues.”
In just six months in 2005, the cost of materials used in road and bridge repair and construction went up 34.6 percent. That includes such items as asphalt, concrete and steel rods used to reinforce concrete.
Hartgen said Maine is not alone in delaying or canceling projects because of increased costs. He said the state may or may not slip in the national rankings next year because all states are facing increased costs.
“What is important is that Maine, in developing its budget, is taking into account inflation,” Hartgen said. “Many states are not doing that, and they will face even more serious problems.”
Cole said that in the budget request he will make to the Legislature in January, he will ask for a 10 percent increase to account for the inflationary increase in costs.
Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, said the report is good news in its assessment of how Maine is spending its highway dollars. But, he said, efficiently spending too few dollars will not solve the state’s fundamental problem.
“We are not investing enough in our roads and bridges,” he said. “We have to change the way we fund our investments, and that is going to be a major challenge.”
Damon said all options need to be considered, even those that may seem politically impossible or silly to some.
“Am I advocating toll roads? No I am not,” he said. “But we should consider the option as we should all options. I understand some states are looking at naming rights for their rest areas, but I don’t think we have enough left with all we have been closing in the last few years.”
Sen. Christine Savage of Union, the senior Republican on the panel, said the current way Maine funds it roads and bridges will not provide enough revenue to maintain existing highways, let alone reduce the growing backlog of needed improvements.
“We have been discussing, in the committee, for several years how to come up with a solution,” she said. “Nothing seems to work because you cut into the revenue of the general fund.”
One proposal the panel previously discussed, for instance, was to dedicate the sales tax on cars to boost the highway fund, but that would have removed a sizable amount from the general fund.
Most of state government is funded through the general fund. The highway fund, which is separate, gets most of its revenue from fuel taxes.
“We will be making recommendations to the Legislature in January,” Cole said. “I can’t say what we will propose, but we will be presenting a report on what is facing the state and what the options are for the Legislature to consider.”