Who’s on the committee? What’s on the docket?
New session brings new leadership, new bills for Transportation Committee to consider
By John Melrose
This winter, as the 125th session of the Maine Legislature gets underway, the Joint Standing Committee on Transportation is expected to tackle a number of challenging issues. And as it does, the 13-member committee will have two new co-chairs to lead them: Senator Ronald F. Collins (R-York County) and Representative Richard M. Cebra (R-Naples). Both have served on the committee before and are versed in the issues facing the state’s transportation system – hundreds of aging bridges in need of repair; thousands of miles of outdated, unimproved rural highways; an aging public transit fleet; ports and rail infrastructure in need of improvement and modernization; and, of course, limited funding.
Senator Collins, who previously served four terms in the legislature, sat on the Transportation Committee during the early 2000s. Representative Cebra, another Transportation Committee veteran, is currently in his fourth term in the legislature.
MBTA President Deborah Dunlap Avasthi praised the experience of the two chairs: “The good news is, both of the new committee chairs have served on the committee before and are dedicated to making transportation in Maine safer and more efficient. The MBTA is looking forward to working with Senator Collins and Representative Cebra this session.”
What’s on the agenda
While the bills still are being drafted, it is certain the Appropriations Committee will hear numerous requests for bond financing, including a dozen on transportation matters alone. The transportation bond titles include two initiatives of particular interest to MBTA members: one is a General Fund bond issue for transportation of all modes; the other is a Highway Fund bond issue focused on highways and bridges. At least three bond proposals pertain to rail; one addresses the Port of Searsport, another LifeFlight; and at least two pertain to the Kittery-Portsmouth bridge needs. Another bill has been filed to implement the recommendations of the Bi-State Bridge Funding Task Force that recently issued its report on the Kittery-Portsmouth bridges. That bill was submitted by Representative Devin Beliveau (D-Kittery).
The Appropriations and Transportation Committees will be engaged on two bills supported by the MBTA: one addresses cost sharing between the General Fund and Highway Fund on the Maine State Ferry Service and the Maine State Police; the other seeks to allocate 20 percent of transportation-related sales tax revenues to the transportation-related expenses of the state. The two committees will collaborate on another measure that seeks to bolster the STAR (State Transit, Aviation and Rail) account and its capacity to fund transit, rail, aviation and marine transportation. This bill will likely seek to set aside further revenues from the car rental tax.
In keeping with all of the campaign pledges last fall, the Taxation Committee will not be hearing any bills seeking to raise motor fuel taxes. The committee will hear three bills on taxation of ethanol- and alcohol-based fuels, and municipalities will have an interest in four bills seeking to modify the motor vehicle excise tax. The legislature will reconsider a proposal made in previous legislatures that would require a two-thirds vote on any measure to raise taxes. This would require a constitutional amendment and therefore ratification by the voters of Maine. One bill calls for the repeal of motor fuel tax indexing and that is particularly troubling to the MBTA and other transportation advocates.
The Transportation Committee will give considerable attention to the Highway Fund budget. The supplemental budget designed to balance the Highway Fund in the current fiscal year has not been filed as yet but most agree it will contain few surprises, given the current condition of the Highway Fund. The next two-year budget will not be easy at all.
The Transportation Committee has a slew of other bills to consider, including a proposal to study leasing the Maine Turnpike Authority and two bills dealing with turnpike financing and the sharing of turnpike surpluses with the state. One bill calls for the “restoration of Maine’s secondary roads” and one to “repeal the laws governing the TransCap Trust Fund.” A couple of bills have been submitted that call for the state to reimburse municipalities for storage of sand and salt reserves in certain cases.
The overriding challenge of the session will be the lack of funding for transportation capital improvements. With little to no legislative interest in raising revenues and a general uneasiness over bonding, it will be critical for the legislature to re-examine priorities and make some very tough spending decisions.