Op-ed by Bruce Van Note, Maine’s transportation commissioner
There has never been a more important transportation bond vote in Maine than the one to be decided on July 14. Question 2 asks voters if they support a $105 million state investment in Maine’s transportation infrastructure. This bond will be used to match an estimated $275 million in federal and other funds. Like past years, the vast majority of these funds will be used for highway and bridge projects statewide as planned by the Maine Department of Transportation.
Unlike past years, approval of this bond is needed to support projects ready to go to construction this year. If this bond does not pass, the Department of Transportation will have no choice but to cut projects. Of course, 2020 is a year like no other. We are fortunate that, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Janet Mills deemed construction work essential. The dedicated staff at the Department of Transportation produced this essential work at an exceptional rate, delivering projects at a best-ever, on-time rate of 97 percent.
In April alone, we opened bids on 58 construction contracts — the highest monthly total in the past three years. Those contracts have continued to support hundreds of good-paying construction jobs at a time when Maine needs them most. In March, the number of vehicles on Maine roads dropped by about half as we battled the virus. This enabled us to allow more daytime construction work and lane closures — something that is safer and cheaper. As the economy reopens, traffic counts have begun to rebound, but volumes are still about 10 percent to 30 percent less than normal, depending on where you are. Of course, less driving means less gas purchased, which means less fuel tax revenue going into the state’s highway fund.
While we won’t know the precise amount of the budget shortfall until the Revenue Forecasting Committee meets later this month, the department’s current working estimate tells us to brace for a $56 million hit. That’s an 11 percent drop in the next fiscal year — the deepest and most sudden drop of highway fund revenue in memory.
Previous recessions resulted in smaller drops occurring more gradually. In short, like everyone else, we are adapting to something we have never experienced. Under current law, federal emergency relief funding provided to the states for the pandemic cannot be used to replace our lost revenues. Although we know our congressional delegation is working on fixing this, the bond funding represented by Question 2 is currently the only reliable way we can keep our capital program going. Normally, we use bond funds for projects in future years. This year, the bond funds are needed to keep improvement projects flowing this year. That’s what makes this bond vote more important than ever. COVID-19 just makes a bad funding situation worse. In early March, just before the pandemic hit here, a bipartisan, independent commission supported by the Legislature and the governor issued a report that concluded that the Department of Transportation’s annual unmet funding need is about $232 million, and that figure was contingent upon the assumption that ongoing prudent bonding would continue. Of course, the urgency of focusing on the economic needs of Maine families and businesses means that addressing this chronic funding challenge may need to wait.
Again, this just underscores how critically important transportation bond funding is right now. We also believe that support of Question 1 — a $15 million bond for high-speed internet in underserved parts of Maine — is a logical and prudent choice.
Most of us have been impacted by months of telework and remote learning. The need for more broadband is obvious. Together, these two bond questions will help to safely connect us — both physically and digitally. Anyone who spends any time driving in Maine understands the critical need for transportation funding. Maine people have approved our bonds by wide margins in the past. We are thankful for that support, and we never take it for granted, but the reality is that bond funding is more important than ever this year. The need may never again be so high and interest rates may never again be so low. Accordingly, we hope Mainers will again support transportation by voting “yes” on Question 2.