Credit: File photo by Brian Swartz

The LePage administration is proposing a fee on hybrid and electric vehicles. Owners of these types of cars and environmental groups strongly oppose the proposed fees.

The proposal, LD 1806, is aimed at resolving a real problem — Maine has far too little money to pay for needed road and bridge maintenance and repair. The bill calls for an annual registration fee of $150 for hybrid vehicles and $250 for battery-electric vehicles. The fee is needed, Meghan Russo of the Maine Department of Transportation told the Portland Press Herald, because owners of these vehicles don’t contribute much, if anything, to road work through the state’s gas tax.

A public hearing on LD 1806 is scheduled for 1 p.m. Tuesday before the Legislature’s Transportation Committee.

The debate highlights real and challenging concerns. Maine needs more money for its infrastructure, but it shouldn’t discourage the ownership of fuel-efficient, low-emissions vehicles that are better for our environment and health.

The simplest way to begin to resolve this problem would be to raise the state’s fuel taxes, which is now 30 cents per gallon for gasoline and 31 cents per gallon for diesel fuel. This is unchanged since 2011.

These tax rates were adjusted annually for inflation until 2011, when indexing was repealed. Now, like federal fuel taxes, it is not keeping pace with transportation needs. The gas tax shortfall is exacerbated by an overall increase in fuel economy among U.S. vehicles and the fact that Americans are driving less.

In Maine, combined state and federal funding falls short of meeting transportation goals set in state statute by $59 million per year. This figure from the Maine Department of Transportation underestimates the shortfall because the department includes in its tally an expected $100 million per year from bonds, money that is far from assured. More than 19 percent of the state’s bridges are functionally obsolete, and 18 percent of state highway miles are rated poor or unacceptable.

Simply put, Maine — and the federal government — need more money to pay for transportation needs. Raising the gas tax or assessing a fee on electric and hybrid vehicles in isolation won’t fill the funding backlog. Instead, a comprehensive approach is needed.

A bill carried over from last session, LD 1149, would be a good starting point for this discussion. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Andrew McLean, a Gorham Democrat who is the House chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, includes a 7 cent per gallon fuel tax increase, a $200 surcharge on hybrid and electric vehicle registrations, a $3 increase in many motor vehicle-related charges at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. The legislation would also devote 10 percent of the sales tax on transportation-related items to the Highway Fund.

McLean also proposed a study into using a miles-traveled fee system as an alternative to the gas tax. Oregon is testing such a system. A Congressional Budget Office study found that vehicle-miles traveled fees are less onerous on low-income and rural households than fuel taxes because these households tend to own older, less fuel-efficient vehicles.

Maine’s road and bridge work backlog has had big consequences in the past — think of the unexpected closure of the Waldo-Hancock bridge and the big detours it necessitated — and will have damaging impacts going forward. Lawmakers can’t keep ignoring the problem.

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