April 06, 2020

Somerset County ponders road needs

SKOWHEGAN – Torn between the need for good roads and the high price tag such repairs carry, Somerset County leaders wondered out loud Friday whether the state will end up putting a tollbooth somewhere between the Jackman border crossing and Skowhegan.

State roads, such as Route 201, are vital to the area’s economy, but they need expensive repairs and modifications.

Kenneth Young of Kennebec Valley Council of Governments told members of the Somerset Economic Development Corp. that a new Maine Department of Transportation plan outlines some of the most important transportation changes in the area.

In the upper Kennebec area, the proposals are: add passing and climbing lanes for trucks on Route 201; construct a new bridge just east of Skowhegan; reconstruct Route 43 in Madison and Route 6 and 15 from Jackman to Rockwood to accommodate heavy truck traffic; create bicycle connections to the scenic byway and East Coast Greenway; construct a truck safety ramp for Moscow hill on Route 16 in Bingham; and install a park-and-ride lot at the Interstate 95 and Route 201 interchange in Fairfield.

The projects were listed as priorities after public meetings, and studies of individual towns’ comprehensive plans and regional economic development plans.

The bad news, however, is that there is no money for such projects, Young said. He said the Maine DOT Strategic Investment Plan is a 20-year plan. “This is not the classic MDOT two-year plan but rather looks farther beyond,” he said. “But it has no identified funding source. And there needs to be a new mechanism for funding.”

In July 2005, the Maine Better Transportation Association, a nonpartisan transportation watchdog group, predicted just this scenario, and Young cited its research in his presentation.

“Public investment in Maine’s highway system peaked decades ago,” the report “Losing Ground” states, “and yet growth in highway travel has accelerated.

“The state continues to underfund highway improvements from year to year and relies too heavily on stopgap maintenance strategies, largely unaware of the flaws gathering in their roads and bridges.”

Young said that even the road he uses to get to work recently was given a “skim coat” of paving, which is expected to last only a couple of years.

“Skim-coating nearly impassable roads is not a long-term solution,” Young said.

One hot topic on the Route 201 and Route 2 corridors is curb cuts. The more curb cuts and access to the roads used heavily for commerce, the slower the traffic.

Local lawyer and state Sen. Peter Mills said it is a matter of balancing the interests of property owners and the interest of commerce.

“Route 201 is still pretty virgin,” Mills said. “But if the idea is to promote the flow of commerce, this is a tough issue.”

Wes Baker of the Old Canada Road Project said curb cuts already are becoming an issue along Wyman Lake in Moscow. “The value of lakeside property is rising dramatically, and as the properties are sold, those curb cuts will cause a bigger problem. It would be [more] advantageous to [deal with this issue] now than to wait until we’re in a real mess.”

Mills said that when he obtained his first driver’s license in 1968, gas taxes were 7 cents a gallon.

“The state was collecting 40 percent of everything that went through the pump,” he said. “Today Maine residents use 10 times the gas and the taxes are between 26 and 27 cents, and we are collecting only 10 percent of the sales price.

“We don’t have the stomach to keep increasing the gas tax to keep up with the cost of asphalt and steel,” Mills said.

Several SEDC members suggested a joint meeting of KVCOG, DOT representatives and SEDC members along the Route 201 corridor to begin a conversation about relevant issues such as curb cuts.

Jeff Hewitt, economic developer for Skowhegan, said such meetings would promote local control.

“Once we implement some local requirements, we’ll have the opportunity to grow the way we want to grow, not the way someone else [outside the county] wants us to,” he said.

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