The head of the Maine Department of Transportation is urging voters to pass a $105 million borrowing package as the state’s highway budget faces a potentially massive funding shortfall.
Maine routinely passes annual bonds to help pay for its underfunded road, bridge and other construction and improvement projects. The transportation bond is Question 2 on the July 14 statewide ballot.
The bonds shore up critical infrastructure in a normal year. With gas tax revenue tanking amid reduced travel during the coronavirus pandemic, this year it means the difference between building or canceling projects, said Transportation Commissioner Bruce Van Note in an interview.
“If we don’t get this bond this year, there will be dramatic impacts on what we could advertise for projects starting as soon as July and August this year,” Van Note said. “If we don’t get this, there is no plan for what we do – we’ll have to cut capital projects.”
The $105 million bond would deliver $90 million for road and bridge construction and $15 million for ports, rail, aviation, marine transportation and active transportation such as pedestrian and cycling improvements. The money would be matched with $275 million in federal and other funds.
Bonds are typically used to pay for transportation projects in the next year, but with a looming revenue shortfall, Maine intends to use the funds to pay for work this year, Van Note said.
The department projects the state’s highway fund will have a shortfall of up to $100 million through the end of June 2021. A precipitous drop in traffic over the past three months means fewer Mainers were buying gas and paying the 30 cents-per-gallon tax that is dedicated to the fund. The highway fund pays for about 31 percent of the state’s three-year highway work plan.
Traffic on Maine roads fell to less than half of what it was at the same time in 2019 in early April, amid a statewide stay-at-home order. Traffic is up now, but last week was still 23 percent below what it was last year, according to Maine DOT.
Van Note said the state was initially optimistic Congress would pass a relief package for state and local governments to help address the shortfall. But as the weeks pass by, federal assistance has become less certain, he said.
“That puts increased importance on Maine taking care of itself here for transportation funding and passing the bond on July 14,” he said. “We don’t like taking voter approval for granted, and we don’t.”
Maine voters have overwhelmingly supported transportation bonds over the past six years, but lawmakers have argued that borrowing for regular highway work is unsustainable and have tried to come up with alternative funding.
There are only two statewide referendum questions on the ballot next month. Question 1 would approve a $15 million bond to improve high-speed internet for communities that lack adequate service, to be matched by $30 million in local, federal and other funds.