(The Center Square) – The mandated lockdown caused by COVID-19 has led to a steep drop in state revenues, with the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) expecting a roughly $74 million loss in taxes and fees over the spring and summer months.
Over the next 18 months, the revenue loss could be close to $124 million, MDOT Public Information Officer Paul Merrill said in an email response to The Center Square.
“While MaineDOT has the money to fund the work that is currently underway, we are anticipating a significant revenue drop over the next 18 months," Merrill said. "Fewer people driving means fewer people are buying fuel, and Maine’s Highway Fund is primarily funded through fuel fees (the gas tax)."
Another source of revenue that has gone away is fees from visitors to Bureau of Motor Vehicles offices, which have been closed for several weeks.
The current terms of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act don’t allow that money to make up for declines in state revenue.
“MaineDOT has received about $17 million in CARES Act funding so far, but that money is earmarked for transit and for the Maine State Ferry Service (which itself lost about $2 million when ridership dropped),” Merrill said. "We have been asking our federal representatives for help."
Overall, traffic statewide is down about 50 percent compared to this time last year. Fewer vehicles on the roads has allowed MDOT to save money by doing construction projects during the day.
“We’ve been replacing bridge joints to improve safety and mobility on I-295 in Portland. That’s work that we had to put off last year because our lowest bidder on the project came in at double what we had expected to pay for it," he said. "We rejected all bids and postponed the work. We’re doing it now for cheaper and with fewer impacts to the traveling public.”
Still, the coronavirus lockdown has amplified an already unwieldy predicament. Merrill noted that a bipartisan commission calculated that MDOT's unmet financial need was $232 million, despite an influx of $100 million a year through bonding.
More help is needed to keep up with what needs to be accomplished, Merrill said.
“The most important thing for people to know is that MaineDOT is an effective and efficient machine that is simply running out of gas,” Merrill said. “Fuel fees haven’t changed since 2003, and indexing stopped in 2012. That change has taken more than $150 million out of our coffers. We are fortunate that legislators and voters repeatedly approve our bonds, but bonding only makes sense when interest rates are low. Bonding is not a sustainable long-term solution.”