Politics & Other Mistakes: Filling potholes

5 mins read

Al Diamon

Problems are easy. Solutions are too much bother.

I suspect that motto is inscribed on the wall of the Maine Today Media newspapers’ editorial offices. Otherwise, it’s tough to explain the opinion piece those publications, including the Portland Press Herald, ran on Oct. 22.

Headlined “Pass Question 2, but the system needs to change,” it correctly noted that Maine has a screwy setup for funding highways and other infrastructure. Then, after a few hundred words explaining how transportation bond issues require a super-majority in the Legislature plus approval by the voters, it concludes, “A different day is coming for our transportation system, and we can’t do things the same way as always.”

Then, it stops.

No suggestions for change. No bold initiatives for a better tomorrow. Not even a weasely call for a study committee.

Doesn’t get lamer than that.

To summarize the problem, Maine borrows a lot of money to fix its roads and bridges, although advocates say the amount isn’t nearly enough to meet the need. This is the seventh time in recent years voters have approved a highway bond of $100 million or so. When the federal aid that cash leverages is figured in — about $250 million for each bond issue – it almost covers the amount needed to keep our roads from getting worse.

It’s a clumsy system, made uglier by the interest we’re paying on those bonds, more than $100 million over their rotating 10-year life span. In other words, for every 10 bucks we spend on highways, one dollar doesn’t buy any asphalt or sand or gravel or even diesel for a front-end loader.

Seems like a stupid way to pay for an essential service.

There are better methods, the easiest of which is: Don’t borrow anything. Pay for highways out of the general fund, with regular budget lines, just as we pay for human services and education. No loans. No interest. Big savings.

The downside is that $100 million would have to come out of other spending, such as human services and education. The big surpluses the state budget is running right now won’t last once pandemic aid dries up, so we’d be talking about some real pain.

Alternatively, we could try weaning ourselves off the lending teat. If we set aside part of the surplus we normally run each year for a Capital Expenditures Fund, we could offset some of the borrowing with real money. It’s not unreasonable to assume this fund could generate $50 million every two years, thereby cutting those interest payments by 25%.

Those concerned that the new fund would lead to unwise spending without checks or balances could be assuaged by requiring voter approval of any money being removed from the fund.

Of course, there’s a simpler plan, as well. We could raise the gas tax and institute a charge on electric vehicles based on how many miles they drive. In fact, we could charge all vehicles based on their odometer readings, making the whole system fairer. This would replace at least part of the need to bond, saving interest, money that could then be deposited in the Capital Fund, further reducing the demands on the state’s credit.

The trouble with that idea is that most legislators lack the reproductive equipment necessary to dare to raise taxes or fees, let alone do anything so radical as monitor everyone’s mileage. Without the requisite courage, this idea travels less distance than the thought process behind the average Portland Press Herald editorial.

There’s no good reason highway funding should be singled out for this tortuous funding process when other equally important budget items cruise through the appropriations process with far less scrutiny and no public referendum. As noted above, roads and bridges could be paid for in any number of rational ways that involve far less political posturing and far fewer pointless editorials.

All it takes is less nerve than passing an overloaded pulp truck on a winding road with cracked macadam, faded center stripes and eroded shoulders.

Flash your directional signals on funding roads by emailing aldiamon@herniahill.net. Never mind the fog lights.

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