April 06, 2020


The Department of Transportation may well take pride in its efficient use of money, as noted in a recent national report. In the long term, however, low-cost fixes will cost the state, warns the report’s author David Hartgen, a professor of transportation studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The on-going transportation budget crunch, coupled with Maine’s backlog of road and bridge repairs and improvements, add urgency to the discussion of diversifying the ways highway work is funded.

In Prof. Hartgen’s annual assessment of the conditions of the country’s roads and bridges, released this month, Maine appeared to do well in terms of getting the most out of its spending. The state ranked 17th in terms of cost-effectiveness in 2004, up from 27th the previous year. One way the department has made do with less money is to repair roads and bridges that, in better economic times, should be replaced.

By Prof. Hartgen’s measurement, however, these lower-cost fixes, such as a thin overlay of pavement in lieu of a more expensive road reconstruction, improve the condition of a road. This would improve a state’s cost-efficiency ranking in the short-term. It is not a sustainable approach.

That’s why the Department of Transportation and Legislature’s Transportation Committee are wisely already considering new ways to fund Maine’s road work. Maine already had a $1 billion backlog of road and bridge repairs. Many of these projects have languished on DOT lists waiting for funding. Highway projects are funded, in addition to federal dollars, from the state’s highway fund and by bond issues. The highway fund gets nearly 70 percent of its money from fuel taxes.

Funding from the state’s gas tax has declined while the cost of construction materials and the fuel needed for equipment has dramatically risen. This is a problem nationwide. For the first time in 21 years, spending on major highway improvements nationwide declined in 2004.

The third source of funding – bonds – has also become problematic. Earlier this year, Maine lawmakers rejected a $60 million transportation bond and $130 million worth of worth of work was put on hold.

Many other options – tolls, privatization of roads, higher gas taxes – must be discussed.

Maine’s need for more funding for roads and bridges isn’t going to decline. Maintenance accounts for 23 percent of DOT’s budget, the 8th highest proportion in the country, according to Prof. Hartgen. New Hampshire, which has a third fewer miles of roads than Maine, is first, with more than 36 percent of its highway funding being used for maintenance.

Frugality is good. It is not a solution to Maine’s highway funding shortfall, however.

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