Cover Story: Crumbling bridges in the spotlight
With several high profile postings and closings in the news, MaineDOT balances budget shortfalls with the need to protect the public safety.
By Douglas Rooks
For longtime observers of Maine’s transportation needs, the front-page story in the Bangor Daily News last month might have seemed like old news. The Maine Department of Transportation estimates it is replacing bridges only half as fast as they are deteriorating, and the structural deficit in bridge maintenance has been evident in Highway Fund budgets for several years. Nonetheless, the recent news stories raised public awareness of the problem.
The BDN reported that “the number of bridges in Maine that are in poor condition or worse is growing,” and that members of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee “are alarmed.” It quoted Sen. Dennis Damon (D-Hancock), the Senate chair, as saying “It’s a crisis situation. It’s not just something where we can do it if we can find a little money here or there. I don’t want to see here what has happened in other places, where they waited for a tragedy to occur.”
The “tragedy” Damon alluded to occurred in Connecticut, when a bridge over the Mianus River on the Connecticut Turnpike, part of Interstate 95, suddenly collapsed on June 28, 1983. Three lives were lost and three other travelers suffered serious injuries as their cars plunged into the river. The bridge was closed for months, and the state ultimately paid out $25 million in claims to survivors. Its attempt to recover the money from the engineering firm that designed the bridge failed when a jury decided that improper maintenance and a lack of inspections were the likely cause of the catastrophe. In subsequent years, the Connecticut Legislature enacted an ambitious bridge and highway rebuilding program, funded by what was then the nation’s highest state fuel tax. It not only replaced bridges statewide but also built new limited access highways in addition to the federally supported interstate system.
Maine’s bridge problems are not as severe as Connecticut’s were some 20 years ago, but that doesn’t mean they are minor. As part of its report to the Transportation Committee, MaineDOT identified 288 bridges that could be at risk for closing or weight limit posting within the next 10 years. Sixty-nine of those bridges are already posted at weight limits as low as three tons, though most are more typically posted at 10 – 20 tons. That is enough to allow passage for school buses, fire trucks and oil deliveries – but not much else in the way of commercial traffic. The bridges are in all parts of the state and represent vital connections located in every county.
Assistant to the Chief Engineer at MaineDOT, Chip Getchell, says that many of the bridges on MaineDOT’s “watch list” are vital. The list includes, for instance, the New Belgrade Road overpass on I-95, the Veranda Street Bridge in Portland, as well as the Hammond Street Bridge in Bangor and the Webster Avenue Bridge on I-395, also in Bangor. The latest MaineDOT information shows that 191 bridges and minor spans are more than 80 years old, and 48 are beyond 90 years – older than anyone imagined when they were first built in the early 20th century.
Getchell said that the MaineDOT’s engineering committee’s bridge report is highly credible. The committee is devoted solely to evaluating bridge conditions and how that relates to safety. “There are absolutely no politics involved,” he said. “These are straight shooters, and they always have been.” And according to the committee’s report, the immediate situation is bleak. At best, MaineDOT figures it can replace 14 of the 32 bridges that ought to be retired each year, given recent budgets. At that rate, it doesn’t take long to produce the kind of backlog that Maine now faces in terms of bridge maintenance and replacement.
There is little doubt that bridge problems attract attention, and plenty of it. The posting of the Waldo-Hancock Bridge on Route 1 and its replacement by the new, $85 million Penobscot Narrows cable-stay span was a dramatic example of the costs of deferred maintenance. The price of bridge failure, both in terms of cost and safety, is so high that endangered bridges immediately go to the top of the priority list. “When you have that kind of serious safety issue, where failure could be catastrophic, it’s hard to devote as much attention to potholes, even on a major highway,” said Tom Gorrill, president of Gorrill-Palmer Consulting Engineers in Gray. “And if a bridge has to be closed, you might be losing 10 miles of an otherwise perfectly good road.”
What MaineDOT is now finding is that the Waldo-Hancock Bridge might have been just the tip of the iceberg. The Graham Lake Road bridge in Ellsworth had to be posted abruptly, with emergency repairs ordered. The Walker’s Shop bridge in Bridgton has just been shut down entirely, and two other bridges have been newly posted. There is hope that MaineDOT’s report – and anxiety about cutting off major transportation routes – will prompt action at the Legislature. But transportation revenues are extremely tight at both the federal and state levels. [Last year, the MaineDOT cut $100 million in projects out of a very modest capital program, and last month, - in a supplemental Highway Fund budget – the Legislature and Governor cut an additional $14.2 million in projects when declining fuel taxes forced a budget shortfall.] The question is whether more funding for bridges will mean less funding for roads. As of now, the answer would appear to be yes.
John Melrose, former MaineDOT commissioner and now a consultant for the Maine Better Transportation Association, figures in the late 1990s, the state was reconstructing about 150 miles a year of the 8,300-mile network of state roads. Even as late as the 2001-2002 biennium, the state could still do about 100 miles of major reconstruction projects on the network.
Given recent cutbacks and project cancellations, that figure has plummeted into the single digits in terms of miles rebuilt. This year, transportation leaders are urging the Legislature and the Governor’s office to propose a Highway Fund bond of between $150 - $200 million over two years to begin to get the state’s highway and bridge maintenance program back on track. Melrose said that if Maine stays with the status quo and doesn’t make a significant investment, the situation will only deteriorate further. “If we don’t accelerate the pace, it will take 600 years to redo the network,” he added. The question of how tuned in the public is to the infrastructure shortfall – both for roads and bridges – and how willing it is to pay for improvements is a subject of vital concern in the transportation community.
“I think the public is aware there is a problem,” said Scott Leach, Maine district manager for the Lane Construction Corporation and this year’s MBTA president. “They do understand that their roads aren’t up to standard, and probably won’t be fixed soon. But has it reached a point where they demand action? That’s what is not clear to us yet.”
The difference in drama between a collaps ing bridge and a road whose underlayment is beginning to go to pieces may be considerable. But both cases represent under-investment that will create major trouble, and expense, in the not-too-distant future, Leach said.
Canceling and delaying road projects, as has been all too frequent for MaineDOT lately, can create a downward spiral for overall investment – one concern that just about all parties to the discussion agree.
A difficult outlook
For design engineers and contractors, the situation has already become acute. Asked about the outlook for work this year, Tom Gorrill said, “What outlook?” only half in jest. His firm recently finished design work on a MaineDOT project for Route 1 in Thomaston originally commissioned in 2000 (construction was delayed last summer), and it has no other state jobs of any kind in the pipeline.
“There’s absolutely nothing,” he said. “We usually have five or six people at work on state design projects. Now we have just one and it’s questionable how long we can even do that.”
Even if a new source of money became instantly available for highways and bridges, there might not be any designs ready for construction contractors to use, he said. At Lane Construction, the situation is equally grim in the Maine division, Scott Leach said. Normally, at this time of year his company would be bidding “every week” on major paving contracts and reconstruction jobs. “There’s nothing at all,” he said, running through the list on the MaineDOT website. “There’s a guardrail project or two, a flagging crew, a request for hourly rates on construction. There’s nothing to be built at all.” Once a biennial budget is approved, Leach expects more projects to come through, but not in a robust fashion. By then it may be too late to make much of a dent in the backlog during this year’s construction season. “We continue to be concerned about the outlook, and many other companies are equally concerned,” said Leach. “This is a tough time for the industry, but also for the traveling public.”
At MaineDOT, Chip Getchell said that whatever funding the state provides, transportation officials will still likely be faced with some hard choices – possibly including decisions to close some bridges where local conditions dictate. Bruce Van Note, MaineDOT’s deputy commissioner for finance, amplified that point for the Bangor Daily News. Safety, he said, is paramount in the department’s decision-making. “We will close bridges if they are unsafe,” he said. “We will take the heat for that, but we will do it.”
What it will take
Shifting money from one program to another has only limited potential to meet any long-term infrastructure needs, Leach said. “If we really want to solve this problem” of under-investment, “we have to look at a serious solution.”
He would divide the problem into short and long-term components. “In the short run, we have to come up with a responsible bond issue and then sell it to the Legislature and the voters,” he said. To start to make a dent in the construction backlog for both bridges and highways, that would mean a $150-$200 million package for the current biennium, even if it is split over two bonds in two years.
While larger than other highway bond issues in recent years, Leach believes such a plan is realistic, given sharply increasing construction costs of over 35 percent in recent years and the under-funding of the biennial Capital Work Plan that led to widespread scuttling of projects last year.
The long-term “serious solution,” he said, “is a new funding source for transportation. The gas tax isn’t going to do it any more, at either the federal or the state level.” Leach said that what’s important is not that Maine use any particular revenue stream for transportation, but that it develop a long-term plan and make the commitment to “getting the job done,” just as it would any other capital investment that’s essential to future prosperity.
Tom Gorrill said that his firm and others dependent to some degree on state contracts might appear to be advocating for themselves, but that the connection between transportation and economic growth is so strong that it can’t be ignored. “There’s no faster way to create good jobs and a quick economic payback than to invest in highway and bridge projects,” he said. “It just makes good financial sense. Highway dollars are re-spent eight to nine times in the local economy.”
Other policy organizations are starting to take note of transportation as a separate driver of economic growth. For the first time in years, the Measures of Growth report released by the Maine Development Foundation’s Maine Economic Growth Council on Feb. 28 – one of the most respected economic reports anywhere on the Maine economy – included a transportation index. It included a “red flag,” noting that “Maine’s roadways are in considerably worse condition than the rest of the region.”
Given the arguments made over the past two years at the Legislature, and traditionally strong support from the voters for transportation bond issues, it might seem surprising that more hasn’t been done already to shore up MaineDOT programs.
Tom Gorrill said he recognizes that there is concern about the state’s overall debt level, particularly among Republicans. He said this concern obscures two critical points. One is that the cost of borrowing is still historically low, so additional debt has a smaller impact on the budget. The other is that the value of investment in existing roads and bridges is being lost rapidly as key maintenance deadlines are missed and projects are cancelled.
Gorrill is concerned by comments he has heard from a neighbor in Gray who has expressed concern repeatedly about the condition of Route 26, a road he uses every day. “He says he’s voted for every bond issue the Legislature has authorized, and still the road doesn’t get fixed.” One has to wonder, he said, how many times voters will still approve of bond issues when the results they expect to see don’t seem to be there.
“This time,” he said, “we have to make sure it’s done right.”