- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 3, 2015

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - Maine needs to consider borrowing money and reallocating resources to find an additional $70 million annually to ensure the safety of the state’s bridges and prevent significant long-term costs, transportation officials told lawmakers Tuesday.

The Maine Department of Transportation currently dedicates about $70 million annually for bridge replacement and maintenance projects but says it needs at least double that to slow deterioration and adequately maintain the bridge system.

Commissioner David Bernhardt said he is working with Republican Gov. Paul LePage on a 10-year transportation bond package that could help fill that gap, and he would like to see increased support from the federal government. But he and lawmakers on the Transportation Committee also stressed that the state needs to begin examining new ways to fund infrastructure improvements.

“I think it’s time that we all sit down - somehow - and talk about how we can fund transportation in the future,” Bernhardt said. “There are a lot of ideas out there and we need to look at any and all of them.”

LePage has said he is opposed to raising the state’s gas tax, currently 30 cents per gallon. But alternatives for generating more revenue for roads that other states have considered include taxing the wholesale price of gas instead of taxing each gallon.

Bernhardt and Joyce Taylor, the department’s chief engineer, briefed the committee on a new report it commissioned that says the percentage of structurally deficient bridges in Maine rose more than 1 percentage point between 2008 and 2010. At the same time, the percentage of deficient bridges declined in New England and across the country.

At the current funding level, the state anticipates that 40 percent of Maine’s bridges will move to the “poor” or “unacceptable” category. With $140 million in annual funding, it said, it will be able to get rid of about 90 percent of the structurally deficient bridges on most major roads.

Bernhardt said about 20 percent of the money his department is seeking would be dedicated to preservation efforts - like washing, sealing concrete and painting - that can delay costly rehabilitations and replacements down the road.

House Committee Chairman Andrew McLean, a Democrat from Gorham, raised concerns about Bernhardt’s suggestion that some money dedicated to roads could be reallocated to help pay for bridges. McLean called it “an easy way out.”

“We have growing potholes, we have unsafe roads and we have an economy that’s struggling because we’re not investing in our infrastructure,” McLean said. “We can’t take from one pot and give to another without replenishing the other pot.”

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Follow Alanna Durkin at https://www.twitter.com/aedurkin

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