The dietary fiber of infrastructure

For my first column back, there is no limit to the topics we could consider. There is seemingly limitless heated rhetoric on topics — school shootings, intelligence memos, union fees — filling pages both web and print. So what will my “welcome back” column cover?

Infrastructure.

It’s a bit like dietary fiber: bland and boring. However, if you don’t have enough of it … let’s just say you’re probably in for a bad day.

Many Mainers have seen recent bad days when it comes to infrastructure. The memes about potholes and road decay spike this time of year, with frost heaves knocking front ends out of alignment. Meanwhile, those who take to the roads in heavier vehicles need to navigate the maze provided by those bright orange signs reading: “Posted.”

Bangor roadways have been plagued with a high number of potholes this season. BDN

Customers of another type of infrastructure have also seen large dollar amounts appearing on their bills. Reports have been filed claiming Central Maine Power Co. has a billing error in its system, with massive price spike showing up in their monthly statements. CMP controls the transmission and distribution of power, not the electricity itself. And the cost of their service is also brought into question when it comes to solar power, with individuals remaining connected to the grid but consuming very little energy.

Those two pieces of infrastructure — roads and electricity — merge into another issue: Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to add an annual fee to electric and hybrid vehicles. Why? To fund road maintenance.

Looking at all of this together raises some significant questions. It is probably fair to assume that everyone is in favor of good roads and a reliable electrical grid. But, as is always the case, the question arises of how to pay for it all.

When it comes to our roads, we have two main sources of funding: the annual vehicle excise tax and the gas tax. All vehicles on the road pay the former. However, electric vehicles do not pay the latter. And if the electric vehicle owner also has paid to install solar panels, they minimize the amount they pay towards the poles, lines, and substations required to distribute electricity across Maine.

This presents an obstacle for public policy makers. Finding sustainable revenue streams to provide for roads — necessary for public services, commerce, and tourism — becomes more and more challenging as alternatives to internal combustion engines become available. Further, those in the environmental community object to special assessments under the theory that green technology provides other benefits, which should be encouraged despite the effect on infrastructure funding.

And while CMP holds the monopoly in parts of the state for the transmission and distribution of electricity, delivering those services incorporates significant cost. That is especially true when weather events — such as the October windstorm — create a need for significant spending to bring the grid back online.

The reality of our funding mechanisms demonstrate the need for reconsideration. With various vehicle classes and powertrains appearing in the market, maybe reliance on a gas tax is not the most reliable course of action. It could be time for reconsideration and reinvention of our transportation infrastructure funding models. The Maine Department of Transportation indicates they are continually faced with a funding shortfall to meet the requirements of our existing road network. Maybe an annual fee based on vehicle mileage — similar to LePage’s proposal — is warranted.

The same question exists with the poles and wires distributing electricity. The Maine Public Utilities Commission will get to the bottom of the questionable bills sent to CMP consumers, but finding a fair and equitable way to apportion the cost of delivering electricity on demand is a legitimate question in an age of distributed generation.

In short, we have probably outpaced our legacy funding schemes for public infrastructure. Everyone wants good roads. Everyone wants electricity available when they flip a light switch. But finding the best possible solution to provide the resources necessary to achieve these goals is a significant challenge without an easy answer.

So, rather than attack LePage for suggesting electric vehicles pay a road fee in lieu of gas tax, maybe we should consider the underlying question. How do we pay for the various things we want? And how do we do it in a sustainable and responsible manner?

The Legislature has some work to do to get there. It may not be a hot button issue or flashy, but it is a boring necessity we all need. Like dietary fiber, if we don’t get enough of it, we will ultimately be sorry.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.