AUGUSTA, Maine — Money from a federal infrastructure bill will help fund a range of Maine projects over the next few years, but the state still needs a long-term solution to transportation shortfalls far greater than what the bill can solve.
The bipartisan infrastructure package, which passed the House last week and is expected to receive President Joe Biden’s signature soon, is expected to bring at least $2.4 billion into Maine in the next five years for broadband, road repairs, port improvements and public transit.
The funding boost has been largely hailed by advocates and government officials as a way to begin to address a maintenance backlog estimated at more than $230 million per year, offset high construction costs and fund local projects that might otherwise be pushed off. But the legislation will only partially address long-standing shortfalls in infrastructure funding.
“It is exciting that they actually passed something that is going to make a difference,” said Maria Fuentes, executive director of the Maine Better Transportation Association. “But we have to manage our expectations somewhat.”
Maine has long struggled with a backlog of transportation maintenance, with the state forced to carry out fewer projects in recent years due to funding shortages. A bipartisan legislative group concluded last year that the state needed to increase funding, but they could not agree on a way to do it after thorny discussions about raising the gas tax or rethinking the state formula.
While the most commonly cited price tag for the bipartisan infrastructure bill is $1 trillion or more, not all of the funding is new. The largest part of the money Maine will receive from the bill — about $1.3 billion over five years — is for roads. But that only amounts to a 25 percent increase over the highway funds out of a federal funding formula that the state already receives.
Similarly, the $225 million that Maine will get for bridges amounts to a real increase of roughly $13 million per year. That will help repair or replace some of the more than 300 Maine bridges in poor condition, but addressing the full backlog would require more funds. The price tags of bridge replacement projects currently on the Maine Department of Transportation’s work plan range from $1 million for the bridge over Frazier Brook in Lisbon to more than $21 million to replace the Frank J. Wood Bridge connecting Brunswick and Topsham.
Compounding the issue is higher construction costs due to both labor and materials shortages, which will decrease the buying power of the new federal funds, said Maine Department of Transportation spokesperson Paul Merrill.
“This bill is a positive step in the right direction for infrastructure in Maine, but it’s unlikely to be a long-term solution to the problem of our transportation system’s chronic unmet need,” Merrill said.
Although the increases in funding compared to baseline levels may not solve Maine’s backlog, the infrastructure bill does also expand competitive grant money and discretionary funds. That funding, which states and localities will have to apply for, has the “potential for Maine to make meaningful investments in things that make us special,” including smaller projects such as downtown improvements, said Transportation Commissioner Bruce Van Note.
Once Biden signs the bill, federal agencies will have to write rules for the programs, but applications could open next year. Maine’s congressional delegation has generally excelled at helping entities here get grants, Fuentes noted.
Other elements of the infrastructure bill will account for a more significant increase over current funding. The $100 million Maine will receive in funding for broadband, which follows the $150 million that passed as part of the American Rescue Plan earlier this year, is more than eight times what the state’s connectivity authority planned to spend in its 2019-21 strategic plan.
The infrastructure bill also includes $19 million for Maine to fund charging stations, a provision aimed to help the state transition toward greater use of electric cars. Barring legislative action, electrification could eventually magnify the state’s funding problems as the revenue from the gas tax — the largest source of state transportation funds — drops off even more. That would ramp up pressure on lawmakers to come up with an alternative long-term funding mechanism.
“It’s hard for legislators to want to raise taxes, obviously,” said Fuentes, of the Maine Better Transportation Association, “and so they’re finding other ways, but it takes leadership and it takes somebody convincing the Legislature that that money should go to transportation.”
Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who co-chairs the Legislature’s transportation committee, said the federal funds were undoubtedly helpful. But he noted that it sometimes took the transportation department being “desperate” to convince people to increase funding. With the influx of federal funds, he said some may think roads and bridges are now “taken care of.”
“It’s a big help in the high-need areas, but by no means is this going to solve the problems,” Diamond said. “This problem has been building for years and years.”