MBTA’s Maria Fuentes talks about transportation with Senator Ron Collins (R-York County) and Representative Wayne Parry (R-Arundel), members of the 126th Maine Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Transportation.
Maria Fuentes: When your constituents talk to you about transportation, what do they most often talk you about?
Senator Collins: In York County, they talk mostly about toll increases on the Maine Turnpike. I have also had some inquiries about putting rumble strips on Route 4 and Route 9, due to a rash of head-on collisions. There was a real tragedy earlier this year with a 16-year-old boy crossing the center line and killing a young mother.
Representative Parry: They typically talk to me about local road issues, for instance, intersections. I live on Route 111 in Arundel, which is a tough road in terms of having dangerous intersections all along it. The intersections on Route 111 with New Road and Hill Road are being improved with turning lanes on one road, and other improvements on the other.
Maria Fuentes: The Maine Legislature identified 19 percent of all public roads as the highest priority roads because they carry 70 percent of all traffic; 1,472 miles or 34 percent are in poor or unacceptable condition. The legislature agreed to bring these roads up to at least fair condition. What would be a reasonable time frame for meeting this commitment?
Senator Collins: As soon as funding is available to perform the necessary work. We cannot do the work if we don’t have the money to do it.
Representative Parry: Since I am not an engineer, I would say that we need to do them as soon as possible, within our budget constraints. MaineDOT has done a good job of prioritizing and patching up the worst roads in order to extend their life.
Maria Fuentes: According to national statistics, the performance of Maine’s State Highway System has slipped from 15th in the nation to 32nd in the last decade. One in every six Maine bridges is considered structurally deficient. MaineDOT says they need another $150 million a year in capital funding to reverse these statistics? Where should this funding come from?
Senator Collins: The funding should come from two sources: a partnership between the General Fund and Highway Fund, with the General Fund contributing about 15 percent of highway fund needs. In addition to that, we need to continue bonding, which makes sense for projects that are going to last for a long time.
Representative Parry: The funding should come from the General Fund; I have always advocated for that. The State Police shift was a significant one and I am glad we got it through. The General Fund helps the Highway Fund a little, through paying for debt service on bonds, but we should be getting direct appropriations. Other states on average get 17 percent from the General Fund, and we should try to get at least that much.
Maria Fuentes: Federal fuel taxes have not been raised since 1993 and the federal highway trust fund is no longer self-sufficient. One underlying issue is whether it is best to support transportation with user fees or rely on general funds. What is your philosophy on this issue?
Senator Collins: I feel as though there should be a partnership between the Highway Fund and the General Fund. The priorities should be highways and bridges. In other states, the general fund pays a large portion of the transportation budget. That should happen in Maine, as well.
Representative Parry: I think we need both. If we had more General Fund allocations, we could do a better job with our system. If we rely strictly on the fuel tax, both state and federal, we overburden our citizens to the point that they cannot drive.
Maria Fuentes: Do you support sending a transportation bond to the voters in November of this year to fund highways, bridges, ports, buses, airports, rail and trails?
Senator Collins: Yes, I do, but primarily for highways and bridges.
Representative Parry: Yes, many projects are waiting for funding. I strongly support a transportation bond. In addition to highways and bridges, we need investment in at least one major rail project – with the Eimskip operation in Portland. We need to bring rail right to the ships in order to compete with other states and countries.
Maria Fuentes: Maine’s gas tax is set at 31.5 cents per gallon. A pickup truck getting 15 miles per gallon pays 2.1 cents to travel a mile, but a Prius getting 45 miles per gallon pays one-third of that to travel a mile. How would you address this growing inequity built into the current motor fuel tax?
Senator Collins: At first blush, I would say let’s put a surcharge on the excise tax, but that won’t work because it pays for municipal programs and projects. Perhaps we should look at a mileage fee.
Representative Parry: John Melrose had a great idea on this: to charge electric cars and hybrid owners more. Perhaps we could have an add-on on the registration fees. Either way, they are doing damage to the system, so they should help pay for the repairs.
Maria Fuentes: The last legislature repealed motor fuel tax indexing. While income and sales taxes grow with inflation, now the motor fuel tax will not. Should this decision be revisited?
Senator Collins: My constituents down here didn’t like it, so I was a strong proponent of overturning that. I would say not.
Representative Parry: No, it shouldn’t be, because it was the right decision. If we want to discuss increasing fuel taxes, we should have an up or down vote on an increase. We shouldn’t have this tax on “auto-pilot.”
Maria Fuentes: As we negotiate with New Hampshire over sharing the cost of bridge construction between our two states, do you think we should ask New Hampshire to pay for the cost of their residents using the Downeaster that Maine is presently financing?
Senator Collins: Yes, absolutely.
Representative Parry: Absolutely! New Hampshire should either be providing a direct allocation or should be paying more for tickets for riders to get on and off at any of the stops in New Hampshire.
Maria Fuentes: Maine made a major investment in saving freight rail service to Aroostook by entering into a public-private partnership. Are you encouraged with the results of this partnership so far?
Senator Collins: Yes, I am. It is clear that has been a successful partnership between the public sector and the private sector, and we need to promote jobs in the entire state.
Representative Parry: From everything I have heard, it is working very well. As long as freight continues to grow, we should use more rail, especially as users pay and there are fewer subsidies.
Maria Fuentes: Beyond highway investments, what are your priorities for improving passenger and freight transportation?
Senator Collins: We need to continue to support new, additional funding sources for the Highway Fund. There are a number of national organizations that are working on this, and we need to pay close attention to these funding mechanisms.
Representative Parry: Rail should be a priority where appropriate and financially feasible in tough economic times. We should continue to subsidize building the infrastructure, but users must pay for using the rail.
Maria Fuentes: What accomplishment are you most proud of this session?
Senator Collins: Passing both the supplemental and biennial Highway Fund budgets. The committee had unanimous votes on difficult budgets.
Representative Parry: With very limited resources, the Transportation Committee unanimously put together a strong budget. We are very fortunate in the Transportation Committee – we don’t do partisan. We work across the aisle and, if there is any disagreement, it is more often regional. As the Republican lead, I had a great relationship with Chairman Mazurek and Chairman Theriault. We only had one 9-to-4 committee report all year. So it was very satisfying to work together on that committee; there are great people on it.