April 01, 2020

Road repairs ‘lost in the shuffle’

CARIBOU – It’s no secret that Maine roads and bridges have deteriorated drastically in recent years, especially since the turn of the century, a transportation expert said Friday.

The backlog of projects keeps growing, and 25 percent of Maine roads have been rated as having poor pavement, up 19 percent since 2001. Even fair pavement conditions have dropped from 62 percent to 39 percent in the same years.

Before 1971, fuel taxes ranged from 40 to 49 cents a gallon, when adjusted for inflation; today the fuel tax is between 24 and 27 cents a gallon.

Over the years, according to transportation consultant John Melrose, who spoke to members of the Maine Better Transportation Association and municipal leaders in northern Maine, there has been a $3 billion reduction in the effort to maintain Maine roads.

Melrose, a former Maine Department of Transportation commissioner, said 90 percent to 97 percent of Maine voters have endured inadequate road repairs, poorly paved roads and bridges needing repairs, and less and less money is being spent on repairs.

Maine is 46th in the nation on road conditions and repair, he said. Bad roads cost more for users in auto repairs, accidents and injuries.

In 1999, the Legislature directed the DOT to complete the modernization of arterial roads within 10 years. In the past eight years, only one-third of them have been modernized, and it is expected that the remaining 66 percent will need 17 more years to complete.

In Aroostook County, those roads include portions of Route 1, Route 2A, Route 161 and parts of Route 163, according to Melrose. Some of the roads Melrose mentioned were built during the Depression.

Federal money also has not kept pace with the problem.

Melrose said the highway fund does not even keep up with the cost of inflation.

“The effort’s been lost in the shuffle,” Melrose said Friday morning. “This is the beginning of the process – to get a dialogue going.

“We have a problem in Maine,” he said. “What do we need to turn this around?”

He told his early morning audience of 35 people at the Caribou Inn and Convention Center that the state put 26 percent of its 1975 budget into roads. Today, that has eroded to 11 percent.

“We are at the bottom of the hill with this problem,” he said. “We need to get back up.”

Melrose believed that Maine voters would have approved a bond issue for roads, but the proposal did not make it through the Legislature.

Melrose believes that while Maine residents may not want new taxes, they would like a fresh look at revenues.

“The problem we face is so huge,” he said, comparing the situation to a snowflake in a blizzard.

“We need substantial general fund support for roads in Maine. I hope it doesn’t take a major disaster to make it happen,” he said, alluding to the collapse of bridges and roads in other states resulting in loss of life.

At the top of Melrose’s eight strategic highway investments in Maine is a north-south highway in Aroostook County. The seven others are the east-west highway and an Ellsworth bypass in central Maine, and five in extreme southern Maine.

In 10 years, the number of 80-year-old bridges in Maine will double, and the figure will quadruple in the next 30 years. Melrose said that demands huge investments in bridges. He estimated the investment of $323 million in the next 20 years.

Two bridges on that list are located at Caribou, over the Aroostook River, and at Fort Kent, the post of entry. He said Madawaska’s bridge also should be on the list, but is not.

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