Politics & Other Mistakes: The road(s) not taken

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Maine’s roads, bridges and other vital infrastructure, such as the population of people below retirement age, are in terrible shape.

Our highways are pockmarked with potholes. Spans across rivers and gullies are rusted and sagging. Young people are sneaking out of the state under cover of darkness to seek asylum in more prosperous climes, like Detroit or North Korea.

To address these issues, the state has formed a blue-ribbon committee, which is the state’s clever way of saying it doesn’t plan to do anything to address these issues. The panel had barely begun its deliberations when it became hopelessly deadlocked over how to pay for required maintenance, necessary upgrades and assorted bribes to lure the younger generation back home.

Democrats wanted to raise the gas tax. Republicans wanted to take money from elsewhere in the budget. Somebody else suggested there was a lot of cash to be made selling phony dietary supplements.

These ideas fail to take into account another problem facing Maine: climate change. Of all the greenhouse gases emitted in the state each year, more than half – 8 million tons of carbon dioxide – comes from motor vehicles. That’s far above the national average (29 percent) and well ahead of the amount caused by cow farts. Strangely enough, scientists are hard at work solving that latter problem by studying the effects of feeding cattle seaweed, which has the potential of reducing their noxious pooting by more than 25 percent.

Removing that odor from the air might convince millennials to reconsider their plans for departure. After all, Detroit isn’t noted for its sweet smell.

But back to roads and bridges. Bringing them up to reasonable standards would cost something in the neighborhood of $140 million a year, above and beyond the nearly $400 million the state is already spending. If that money could somehow be found, the newly refurbished transportation system would almost certainly encourage increased driving and, in turn, even more carbon dioxide spewing into the air.

It’s not as if drivers are suddenly going to park their vehicles and take public transportation. In most of the state, such services are rarer than decent broadband. In sparsely settled sections of Maine – places where they don’t even have Uber – there’s no way buses or trains could cover their costs without massive amounts of tax money. Even in urban areas like Portland, substantial subsidies are needed.

The state could raise the 30-cent-a-gallon gas tax. It could slap annual fees on electric vehicles, which pay no gas tax but use the roads anyway. It could increase the price of inspection stickers and vehicle registration. It could divert sales taxes paid on auto repair products to the highway fund. It could recruit criminals to rob tourists and split the take.

Or it could try something innovative.

In my misspent youth, I once advocated for Maine to stop plowing the roads after snowstorms. That would have reduced wear and tear on our precious asphalt, cut down car exhaust and encouraged everyone to live within snowshoeing distance of a good bar. Unfortunately, it would also have reduced our economy to something resembling North Korea’s. Except with no nukes and better haircuts.

So, let’s take a less drastic approach. On one designated weekday each month, driving should be banned statewide. The only vehicles allowed on the roads would be those related to public safety, mass transit and other vital services, such as beer delivery. Violators would be subject to severe fines, which would be deposited in the highway fund.

Admittedly, this would have only a minor impact on our infrastructure and air pollution problems, a reduction of less than 3 percent in both. But it would be a lot more fun than increasing taxes and fees. It also might encourage improved public transportation and high-speed broadband in rural areas, so idled employees could pretend to be working from home while binge-watching “The Mandalorian.”

I doubt the experts on the blue-ribbon commission will take my idea seriously. But that just makes us even.

Cow flatulence and other dissenting opinions may be emailed to [email protected].

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