One of the first blogs I did for Stirring the Pot was “Maine Roads Stink.” The blog confronted our ambivalence in Maine about how and by how much we fund transportation infrastructure. We complain about roads and bridges, particularly during mud season, but we want someone else to pay. In particular, we fail to ask current users to pay for their impact on highways. Rather, we want future taxpayers to foot the bill, so we borrow money to pay the costs of highway improvements. Transportation bond issues seldom fail to be passed by Maine voters.
Nevertheless, Maine roads still stink. The latest report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers gives Maine a C- grade for its infrastructure. This is better than the nationwide overall grade of D-, but not a source of pride.
If we are serious about improving the quality of economic opportunity for Maine people, there is no more fundamental task than developing good infrastructure. When it comes to fair and efficient means of funding transportation systems, we should ask current users to pay their way.
This means we need to raise the motor fuels tax. The so-called “gas tax” is not perfect; for example it misses electric vehicle users. But the gas tax is far and away the best alternative we have to fund highway maintenance and repair costs. The two factors that affect bridges and roadways are the number of vehicle miles driven over them and the weight of the vehicles traveling those miles. The gas tax captures both of those factors better than any other funding source. The users who drive more miles with heavier vehicles will pay proportionately more taxes.
If we want to get clever with the gas tax and have non-Mainers pay more of it than we do, we can raise the gas tax from May through October and lower it from November to April. In that way, visitors to Maine would pay a higher share.
No one wants higher taxes. But as the engineers point out, we pay for our poor highway infrastructure in higher vehicle maintenance costs, more accidents, and longer commutes. Now is the time to confront the reality of Maine roads and bridges. If we want a higher quality of transportation in Maine we need to be willing to pay for it. And the best way to pay for it is to have the users pay.
It is time to raise the gas tax.