AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) Maine is among dozens of states that are feeling the crunch as federal highway funding diminishes, hindering its ability to keep up with much-needed infrastructure upgrades and improvements.
The amount of money made available to Maine through the Federal Highway Trust Fund fell by about 5 percent, or nearly $10 million, during the five-year period ending in 2013, according to figures compiled by the Associated Press. When adjusted for inflation, the drop reaches more than $26 million in 2013 dollars.
Maine has, for the most part, been able to weather increasing financial pressures by prioritizing and borrowing to fund infrastructure projects, officials say.
But they’re urging the federal government to pump more money into the state, warning that Maine needs an additional $119 million a year just to keep up with the transportation system’s basic needs.
“As a nation, funding our infrastructure just isn’t the priority it used to be,’’ said Maria Fuentes, executive director of the Maine Better Transportation Association, which represents contractors, municipalities and trucking companies and lobbies in Augusta for increased road funding.
Figures provided by the Maine Department of Transportation show that the money made available to the department remained relatively flat between 2008 and 2013, but doesn’t include some highway fund money that flows through other state agencies, said Karen Doyle, director of finance and administration of MDOT.
Ted Talbot, spokesman of the department, said that in addition to prioritizing its limited resources, the state has been forced to do things like post lower weight limits on more roads and bridges until they can be fixed or replaced. Transportation bond proposals also are no longer earmarked for certain projects, giving the department the flexibility to spend the money on the most pressing needs, Talbot said.
“We’re constantly having to innovate, be really creative with the use of our funds and I’m sure if you call any other state they will say the same thing,’’ Talbot said.
The department is planning to undertake nearly 2,000 projects totaling more than $2 billion over the next three years, including 189 miles of highway reconstruction and rehabilitation and 124 bridge construction projects.
But officials say the department needs $119 million more each year if it wants to meet the capital goals set by the Legislature in 2011, which it says are “not overreaching’’ but would “address just the basic needs of the existing system.’’
That includes ensuring that the condition on the state’s most important highways — like the Maine Turnpike and interstate system — is fair or better by 2022.
While many states are taking matters into their own hands by examining new taxes, tolls and fees, no such proposals have recently been seriously considered in Maine.
Republican Gov. Paul LePage has remained opposed to raising the state’s 30-cents-per-gallon gas tax and in 2011 successfully pushed to end automatic inflation-pegged increases in the fuel tax, which over the course of its life generated roughly $300 million for the state, Fuentes said.
Rep. Andrew McLean, co-chairman of the Transportation Committee, said that it’s clear that the state needs to reform the way it funds its transportation system.
He has a bill in this session to form a group to study alternative ways to pay for highway projects, such as a tax on the number of miles traveled or a wholesale tax.
“We need to have this conversation,’’ the Democrat from Gorham said. “We can’t just kick the can down the road. That’s what the federal government is doing.’’