Transportation officials, legislators call for gas tax increase

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PORTLAND — Increase the gas tax and increase user fees to support transportation infrastructure was the message sent to everyone who attended Monday’s Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System meeting at Ocean Gateway.

“Transportation as we know it is crumbling,” PACTS policy committee Chairwoman Katherine Earley said.

John Duncan, PACTS executive director, told the audience heavy with state legislators and local elected officials that PACTS needs an additional $200 million to simply maintain its collector roads, which go between towns.

Duncan said five towns spent $8 million last year on state roads. The town of Cumberland spent the most: $4 million on Route 88, he said.

“The gas tax is not providing us with enough revenue now,” Duncan said. “And it only gets worse in the future.”

Duncan said the federal gas tax has not been increased since 1991 and that today’s more efficient cars are using less gasoline, which means more cars use the roads and pay less for that use.

Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, the former chairman of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, said user fees should be increased to pay for the cost of maintaining the state’s roads.

“Nobody likes taxes, nobody likes user fees, but now the ugly truth is, we need to increase those fees,” Damon said.

Several speakers noted the high quality of the Maine Turnpike, the maintenance of which is covered by tolls. Rep. Ben Chipman, I-Portland, asked why a new $35 million to $50 million York toll plaza is planned on the turnpike while the Memorial Bridge between Maine and New Hampshire is crumbling.

“The money collected has to go to what we’re collecting it for,” Maine Turnpike Authority Government Relations Manager Conrad Welzel said. “Funds for the Turnpike Authority are not for the Department of Transportation.”

Welzel said in the late 1990s the Legislature determined MTA could not collect tolls on the turnpike and allocate those funds to DOT-maintained roads.

“They felt it was smarter to keep the rates lower,” Welzel said.

In addition to discussion of road maintenance, Paul Godfrey of HNTB, the company that put together the Gorham East West Corridor Study, presented the findings of the study.

“The study’s intent was to take transportation and land use and link them together,” Godfrey said.

The study recommended encouraging development in certain targeted areas in Scarborough, South Portland, Westbrook and Gorham, and building infrastructure, such as roads, rail and buses, to service those targeted areas.

“This will allow the transportation department and PACTS to stretch their funding,” Godfrey said.

The full study will be available for review in January, Godfrey said. The study suggested offering funded infrastructure improvements as an incentive for communities to limit growth to the designated areas.

Patricia Quinn, Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority executive director, also presented a brief update on the Amtrak Downeaster rail service, which is being extended from Portland to Brunswick.

“It’s important to invest in a diversified transportation system,” Quinn said, adding one mile of double train track has the carrying capacity of 14 lanes of highway.

The Downeaster recently received $3.3 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation, in addition to the $35 million it received from the Recovery Act funds to support the expansion.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or [email protected]

Sidebar Elements

HNTB Associate Vice President Paul Godfrey presents the “three legs of the transportation stool” — land use, transit and road improvements — during a regional transportation meeting at Ocean Gateway in Portland Monday. HNTB has developed the Gorham East West Study, which calls on local municipalities to limit growth to targeted areas, which would be supported by transportation improvements in those areas.