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Cover Story: A tale of two Maines

Congestion vs. access. Posted roads vs. lane miles. The problems faced by Maine’s rural and urban planners couldn’t be more different. The trick will be finding common ground and working together as the state tackles the growing funding deficit.

By Douglas Rooks

It’s no secret that Maine’s highway construction and maintenance programs are short of money. It’s also no secret that, in a rural state where urbanized areas are the main sources of economic growth, there are widely varied needs in different communities. The growing funding crunch has increased the stakes in a tug of war between two sides that never seem to have a long enough piece of the rope.

The differing perspectives on urban and rural roads have always existed and probably always will, said Rick Michaud, city administrator of Saco. The subject is a familiar one for Michaud who grew up in Fort Kent and Eagle Lake and served in municipal government in Rockland and Madison before reaching his current post in southern Maine. He sees merit in both sides of the discussion. “A smooth ride is important, and the rural areas are right to want their roads reconstructed to a reasonable standard,” he said. But recent explosive growth in highway miles traveled in York and Cumberland counties — much faster than population increases — has made congestion a major headache for traffic planners. He said it’s no exaggeration to say that, in Maine’s two most populous counties, “There are roads that turn into parking lots every day.”

Drawing the lines
A recent report by the Maine Better Transportation Association shows clearly how road problems differ in various parts of the state, and how specific to certain regions the problems are. Posted roads — those that cannot carry heavy commercial traffic during late winter and early spring months — are distributed across a wide band of central Maine, west to east and north of most of the state’s major population centers. The differences are stark.

Statewide, 60 percent of minor collector roads are posted each year, along with 20 percent of major collectors. In York, Cumberland, the midcoast, and much of Kennebec and Androscoggin counties, just six miles of minor collectors and no major collectors are posted. In the western counties, 293 miles of minor collectors are posted, plus an amazing 428 miles of major collectors — more than half the state total in the latter category.

In eastern Maine, 483 miles of minor collectors are posted, plus 283 miles in northern Maine. To a great extent, posted roads are directly related to soil types, but outdated road design is also at fault. Free-flowing, gravel-base soils in southern Maine are fine for road building, and the rich agricultural soils of Aroostook County aren’t bad either. It’s the clay-rich hardpan soils of upland Maine that are particularly unforgiving for pavement, particularly when so little of the mileage has been reconstructed to modern standards.

It’s no coincidence, though, that the lightly traveled roads beyond the major population centers show the greatest deficits between current pavement standards and the acceptable ranges. Pavement and ride quality has dropped significantly from 2001 to 2004. “Poor” quality pavement was up from six percent to 25 percent, while “fair” pavement decreased from 62 percent to 39 percent. Even the “good” interstate miles dropped, from 89 percent to 83 percent.

Congestion presents a sharply different picture in terms of geography. The top 25 “congestion hotspots” lie mostly within York and Cumberland. Just a scattering of these high traffic areas are in populous areas to the north and east. Given the radically different needs, it is little wonder that perceptions of the infrastructure crisis are so different based on where one lives. It’s perhaps surprising that there isn’t greater distance between transportation advocates than there already is.

Metro shortfall
Rick Michaud currently chairs the policy committee for PACTS, the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, one of four federally designated metropolitan areas where transportation funding is allocated by a regional council, rather than the state Department of Transportation (the others are in Bangor, Lewiston-Auburn, and Kittery.) He believes he has an answer to which side of the rural-urban divide is being shortchanged. It’s the metro areas. “You take lane miles, population and traffic counts, and it all says we should be devoting more attention to the areas where people live and work every day,” Michaud said. “The existing formulas don’t begin to catch up to the actual needs.”

In Bangor, Rob Kenerson, director of BACTS, paints a similar picture. Up until the late 1990s, he said, the four metro areas received only about 10 percent of federal highway funding, even though their roads carry about 30 percent of all traffic. After discussions with then- MaineDOT Commissioner John Melrose, the metro share was raised to 20 percent, a proportion that has been maintained fairly closely ever since – although not in every funding round, Kenerson said. When MaineDOT recently allocated $30 million in additional road and bridge funding, only $3 million —10 percent — went to the four metro areas.

Even at 20 percent, PACTS and BACTS are getting less than their due, Michaud said. “I really believe it should be the greatest good for the greatest number. Funding should follow people’s needs. After all, even people who live in rural areas drive urban roads all the time.”

A place apart
From Caribou, the view is a bit different. Jay Kamm, senior planner at the Northern Maine Development Corp., said that access is the key issue. Getting to Aroostook County from other parts of Maine and the Northeast is an issue that is not as easily quantified as traffic counts and lane miles.

Kamm admitted that, “on the one hand, we can be as parochial as any other area.” On the other, there is significant awareness that northern Maine’s lifelines to the wider world involve investments like the Mack Point cargo port in Searsport that moves products vital to the northern economy. And while posted roads may loom large – particularly when they involve one of the two north-south links, as with Route 11 before it was improved – Kamm said his part of the state is not immune from congestion concerns. The Presque Isle bypass, many years in the making, is one such example.

Northern Maine is also more concerned with weight limits than other parts of the state, mostly because heavier trucks cannot travel on the interstate system north of Augusta (with the exception of certain cargoes). It’s an economic development issue that doesn’t fit the available categories, Kamm said, but “that doesn’t mean it’s not important.”

Kamm does give MaineDOT credit for making some significant changes in the way it plans for future needs. The traditional regional divisions of MaineDOT are, in some cases, giving way to corridor planning. To Kamm, this has the potential not only to provide better targeting of available funding, but also to reinforce the mutual dependence of different parts of the state. “If we start thinking about what moves here and back from Portland, and from Searsport, we’re more likely to make good choices than if we just see ourselves as competing regions,” he said.

Still, there are occasional blind spots in the state’s approach to rural areas, he said. When MaineDOT planners recently presented recommendations on reclassification of minor collectors to the Aroostook Public Works Association — essentially turning state-maintained roads over to municipalities, Kamm noticed that 60 of the 90 miles involved were in rural parts of Aroostook County. “Most of the rest were in urban compact areas, where the municipalities were already doing most of the maintenance,” he said. By contrast, turning over a lengthy stretch of state road to a rural town in the County can be a significant burden. “My question was why they were surprised at our reaction, at our concerns,” he said.

Seeing both sides
Pete Coughlan, who oversees local road assistance programs for MaineDOT, has a job that calls for seeing both sides of the debate. At workshops he conducts around the state that highlight local road issues, including project selection and funding, he witnesses the various urban-rural concerns close up. Still, there’s no getting around the overriding reality that “it’s getting harder and harder to get the roads fixed,” he said.

Coughlan recognizes the discontent at the metro planning agencies over current funding levels, but adds, “No one’s getting enough now, and the immediate future doesn’t look a whole lot better.”

He does credit two initiatives MaineDOT undertook, beginning in 1999, with at least rationalizing some of the decision-making regarding where MaineDOT directs funding, and in what quantity. As MaineDOT shifted its reconstruction program toward completing the arterial system that carries nearly 65 percent of traffic, the collector roads, particularly the smaller ones, fell further down the priority list.

In 1999, MaineDOT established the Minor Collector program, which provides two-thirds of project funding from the state if the municipality comes up with the remaining third — a recognition that without local participation, it was unlikely that any of these roads would be rebuilt, he said. While it was received initially with some skepticism, local interest in the program is strong and growing. More than 150 municipalities — nearly a third of the total statewide — expressed interest in the latest round, the largest number to date.

In the first years of the program, more state money was allocated than towns and cities were able to use. More recently, this program, too, has experienced more demand than it can satisfy, and municipal applications now have to be prioritized for funding. In the current biennium, the minor collector program will spend $8.1 million, reflecting both state and local shares, and will reconstruct 21.6 miles of roadway, according to Bill Crouse, a MaineDOT planner.

The second program, known as URIP, for Urban-Rural Improvement Program, provided a new way of allocating maintenance funding. Rather than simply considering road miles, the formula took into account the higher service levels needed in more developed areas, including traffic signals, drainage, shoulders and crosswalks, arriving at what MaineDOT deems to be a more equitable arrangement. Since the program currently allocates $26 million annually, about one-tenth of the MaineDOT budget, “this is a pretty good piece of the pie for the municipalities,” Coughlan said. URIP reflects the lobbying of the Service Center Coalition and other like-minded groups, but Coughlan points out that the program also represents a collaboration with the Maine Municipal Association, which vigorously defends the interest of smaller towns.

He admits that there will never be a perfect way of trying to balance competing interests. “If you look just at mileage, you’ll be drawn to the rural areas where there are an awful lot of roads that need upgrading,” he said. “But does that mean we let Western Avenue in Augusta go, that we don’t pay attention to Route 1?”

While the state will continue to make its allocations more reflective of overall transportation needs, Coughlan said, “We’ve been having this debate for 20 years, and my guess is that we’ll still be talking about in another 20 years.”

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