Maine running out of time to get transportation bond deal done

August 19, 2019

Keith Goble


Time is running out in Maine to once again include a question on the state’s fall ballot about millions in bonds for highway repairs. The state Legislature must act soon on the bond deal.

A year ago, voters approved a $105 million bond to fund transportation projects. During the past 12 years, Ballotpedia reports that Maine voters have approved nine transportation bond issues with a combined total of $778 million in bonds.

The money is used to support the Maine Department of Transportation’s work plan. The agency relies on the funds to cover the annual cost of road and bridge maintenance and repairs.

Passage of the transportation bond initiative in 2018 resulted in $80 million in general obligation bonds for construction and maintenance of highways and bridges. The state’s ports, harbors, transit and freight rail, and bicycle and pedestrian trails received $20 million. Another $5 million was applied to culvert upgrades.

Bond advocates want to return to the same well this fall to help cover next year’s highway repair program. First, however, the Maine Legislature must approve legislation to put the issue on the ballot.

Despite the seemingly annual acceptance of tapping bonds to get road and bridge work done throughout the state, this year’s pursuit was sidelined during the regular session. Democrats and Republicans were unable to reach the supermajority needed to get a borrowing question added to the November ballot.

In addition to funding highway repairs, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills wanted to include provisions to cover conservation, broadband, economic development and other infrastructure in the bond deal.

Republicans did not want to lump the proposals together on the ballot. Instead, GOP legislators said voters should decide on four questions.

The state DOT is calling on the governor to convene a special session to get a bond deal done. The deadline to get bond language on the statewide ballot is Aug. 30.

Supporters say this year’s bond issues are needed to secure federal matching funds, and other funds, for transportation work in the state.

Opponents say it’s not good business to rely on borrowing to pay for projects. Instead, they say the state would be better served to increase the tax rates on gas and diesel to pay for needed work and to match federal funds. They say the tried-and-true method of raising revenue is fairer, cheaper, and more efficient.

The state’s 30-cent excise rate on gas and 31.2-cent rate on diesel are unchanged since 2011.