Bridges at risk
By Scott Leach, MBTA President
During the past months, a drama has been unfolding in the coastal community of Ellsworth, Maine. In late January of this year, the Maine Department of Transportation (MaineDOT) announced to city officials that the condition of the Graham Lake bridge on Route 180 had deteriorated to such an extent that the department was going to have to restrict traffic on the bridge to just 40,000 lbs. The bridge is part of a critical connection between Ellsworth and Bangor, and the threat of posting created a significant public uproar from city officials and local business owners.
The story has a happy, if temporary, ending: MaineDOT was able to erect a temporary bridge that would support weights of 100,000 lbs. in both directions. That is enough to allow city snowplows and fire trucks and the majority of the heavy commercial traffic to cross the bridge. Businesses and city officials were quieted. Local residents were inconvenienced only with a short closure of the bridge, while MaineDOT crews put the temporary bridge in place.
While it is commendable that the MaineDOT was able to swiftly respond to a major public safety issue in Ellsworth, we would be foolish if we didn’t recognize a much bigger problem exists. Even as MaineDOT formulates a plan for permanent repairs to the Graham Lake bridge, we need to be looking at the other more than 100 Maine communities where posted bridges are or will soon become an issue. Earlier this year, MaineDOT’s Bridge Management section identified a staggering 288 bridges under its jurisdiction that, like the Graham Lake bridge, may be on the verge of becoming public safety risks (see MaineDOT Chief Engineer John Dority’s column about the looming bridge crisis in this issue, page 51). Sixty-nine of those state-maintained bridges already have been posted. People take their transportation infrastructure for granted, until they can’t use it.
That’s exactly what the Ellsworth region discovered this winter, and what diverse communities such as Portland, Bangor, Fort Kent, Freeport, Falmouth, Biddeford, Skowhegan, Presque Isle, Shapleigh, Waterboro and Wilton — to name just a few — will face in the next 10 years if we don’t do something soon. We have a network of highways and bridges spanning our state that have safely carried our children and grandchildren to school, our spouses to work and our products and services to our customers. Now that it’s almost gone, maybe now, the public will recognize the dangerous and economically disastrous consequences of the continued underfunding of our transportation infrastructure.
In Ellsworth, until the temporary span was in place, some motorists were driving across the frozen lake in order not to be inconvenienced. The MBTA has, since its founding, advocated for investment in a safe and efficient transportation system in our state and region. But we can’t do it alone. During the past nine months, we have been actively recruiting a coalition of state and community leaders willing to take this issue on.
The coalition is working with our legislative leaders to establish long-term, realistic, stable and adequate transportation funding that will fix our roads and bridges that are falling into worse repair every day. The simple truth is this: transportation is a keystone of economic development and public safety, and without adequate funding, our collective ability to conduct business and to protect the public welfare will be gone.
That became startlingly clear to the city of Ellsworth earlier this year. And because the problem is not just about one bridge in one community, but hundreds of bridges in communities the state, we need to make sure we use our collective influence to advocate for a substantial and long-term solution. I hope you will join the MBTA in the effort to expand our coalition and fight for highway funding. Contact your legislative and congressional leaders. Encourage your friends, co-workers and community leaders to participate in the discussion.
In closing, I want to thank our board of directors and the members who have so far given generously of their time and taken a leadership role in this fight. Particularly, I would like to recognize the efforts of the many business leaders within MBTA and ACM who have met with legislative leaders of both parties to bring this issue to the forefront. One firm, Pike Industries, even created its own calendar of bad roads in the state. Now that is a way to grab people’s attention. I also look forward to seeing you all at upcoming MBTA events this spring and summer, including our annual meeting on May 3 in Augusta, the Washington County meeting June 14 and the Infrastructure Golf Tournament on July 12. Watch your mail, e-mail and our web site for information about these and other special events, as well.
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.”
A thing for ‘yellow iron’
Equipment dealer Chadwick-BaRoss completes $1.1 million renovation of its Westbrook dealership
by Kathryn Buxton
The official hours posted at the new entrance of Chadwick-BaRoss’s dealership in Westbrook, Maine, say work begins at 7:30 a.m. More often than not, work begins well before that hour, but anyone familiar with the company’s 78-year history will not be surprised. The equipment dealer that has served Maine’s construction industry nearly eight decades has a reputation for going the extra mile – and putting in the extra time – if that’s what it takes to get a job done.
“We understand down time and what that costs our customers. We spend a lot of our efforts providing the support to make sure they experience as little down time as possible,” said newly appointed president and CEO Stuart Welch. Welch assumed leadership of Chadwick-BaRoss’s day-to-day operations in early February. He took over reins from George Corey who is now chairman of the board. That commitment to customer service is evident at all five of the company’s branch operations. In addition to operations in Westbrook that also houses the headquarters for the company, Chadwick-BaRoss has dealerships in Caribou and Bangor, Maine, as well as in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, and Concord, New Hampshire. The company is perhaps best known as a Volvo heavy equipment dealer in Maine and New Hampshire, but in Massachusetts, the company also carries equipment lines by CEC, Link-Belt, Timberjack, Ponsse, La Bounty, Takeuchi, Wimmer and Bombardier.
One door, many options
Outside, an army of signature yellow Volvo construction equipment – towering excavators, loaders and haulers and other earthmoving equipment – stand quiet guard in the snow, ready for the start of the 2007 construction season. Inside, as the day gets underway, the Chadwick-Baross parts and service departments are anything but quiet. A parts specialist works at the parts counter with a customer to identify a needed part and track it down among the firm’s five branches. Another prepares parts for shipping to customers across southern Maine. In the service department, mechanics are at work repairing several pieces of heavy equipment.
“We’ve had lots of changes here, and they are all good for the customer and for our efficiency,” said Gary Thebarge, vice president and general manager of the Westbrook site. After eight months of construction, the staff moved into its newly reconfigured space late in 2006. The move is fresh enough that Thebarge and his staff still appreciate how much easier work is in the new space.
For customers, the biggest visible change, according to Thebarge, is how easy it is to find the person they came to see. Before the renovation, the branch had three different entrances: one each for sales, service and parts. Customers frequently ended up in the wrong department. “The work flow and communications are so much easier. Before if you had a question about a part or you were looking for someone, you had to do a lot of walking,” said Thebarge.
Today, all of Chadwick-BaRoss’s customers enter through a double glass door into a bright reception area that is configured somewhat like a wheel and its spokes. A shining compact excavator is parked on display at the center and management offices for all three divisions of the business are off the center reception. Just beyond the reception desk and behind another set of doors is the newly expanded parts warehouse space.
The Portland Tractor Co.
Frank Mileson and Lawrence Murray founded the Portland Tractor Company – the forerunner of Chadwick-BaRoss, Inc. – in 1929. Their headquarters were in Portland, and they sold crawlers and wheel tractors manufactured by the Oliver Corporation. The majority of their business came from the region’s municipal maintenance departments, though some of their business came from the timber industry. In 1959, Robert P. BaRoss and Richard Chadwick bought the business. BaRoss was a manager for Caterpillar, and Chadwick had his own Oldsmobile dealership. They moved their headquarters to Westbrook and ran the business together until Chadwick retired in 1973. BaRoss stayed on with the company until 1990, bringing in an Austrian firm, the Strobl Group, as a voting partner in the company in the late 1970s. In 1985, Chadwick- BaRoss bought Timberland Machines, Inc., a wholesale distributor of outdoor power equipment and dealers of logging, industrial and municipal equipment in New England.
Part of that acquisition included locations in Chelmsford, Bangor and Caribou, and those locations took on the Chadwick-BaRoss name. Today the dealer supplies some of the biggest names in Maine’s construction industry supplying the equipment that, in a sense, powers Maine’s and New England’s economy.
A multitude of dumpsters
Chadwick-BaRoss’s pre-renovation offices in Westbrook reflected, in a way, the many stages of growth the company had seen during nearly eight decades in business. Inside was a maze of hallways, offices, storage areas and maintenance garages – a maze that had been reconfigured many times since the company moved to Westbrook in the early 1960s. To lead the renovation, the company worked with architects Arcadia Designworks, LLC, and RGB Construction. The architect interviewed staff and analyzed how work flowed between departments and how customers interacted with staff. The wheel-and-spoke design emerged from that process. To build the new offices, they had to completely member news gut the old building. Chadwick-BaRoss began the renovation in April 2006. To make way for the construction, staff moved to temporary quarters in trailers at the rear and side of the property. That caused some minor inconveniences, and Thebarge expressed his gratitude for their customers’ patience throughout the reconstruction process.
As crews began demolition on the 40-year-old plus building, it became clear that the initial stages of construction were going to be more complicated than the firm had anticipated. Originally, Thebarge said they estimated that it would require no more than a dozen dumpsters to clear away the innards of the old offices. In the end, 45 dumpsters were needed. “You wouldn’t believe the tangle of wires and old walls that they uncovered. Some of the walls were this thick,” said Thebarge measuring out a good foot or more with his hands.
Same footprint, same faces
While the renovation did not add square footage to the dealership’s footprint, construction crews literally raised the roof on part of the building. This enabled the company to add a second floor and nearly double its warehouse capacity for parts. (President Welch said that while the Westbrook location now stocks a wider selection of parts on site, should a customer need a part that is not stocked there, the staff usually can source it within 24 hours using the company shuttle that runs between all five Chadwick-BaRoss locations). They also added a new sealed loading dock where staff can load and unload delivery trucks – rain or shine – without having to go outside.
Chadwick-BaRoss has invested $1.1 million in the renovation that is already paying off in improved efficiency company wide. The construction is part of the firm’s long-term reinvestment plan that included updates to all five of its dealerships. The first was the addition of 4,500 square feet and upgrades to the facilities in Chelmsford; then came renovations to Bangor and additions to Caribou. Two years ago, the company completed improvements in Concord, including a 10,000- square-foot addition of the service department and renovation of the parts division. While the company consistently reinvests in its physical plants, it also invests in its employees through an extensive corporate wellness program and ongoing training. That is one reason why it enjoys such strong employee loyalty. Many of the staff have been with the firm for a decade or longer and are among the most skilled and knowledgeable in their fields. Chadwick-BaRoss has 14 certified Volvo Master Mechanics on staff – that is the highest level of training available within the Volvo heavy equipment line.
“You could say we have a thing for yellow iron,” said Welch referring to the Volvo’s signature yellow enamel paint when talking about the extraordinary commitment and training of the company’s employees. Chadwick-BaRoss Chairman George Corey, who until February served as president and chief executive officer, concurred. “We’ve always offered good equipment and good service, but it’s really all about having the right people – and we have a lot of the right people,” said Corey. He plans to remain active in the formation of the company’s strategic direction. He also hopes to spend more time with the company’s top customers and with his family.
Corey, Welch and Thebarge demonstrate their clear enthusiasm for “yellow iron” when they start talking animatedly about the significant innovations customers can expect from Volvo Equipment later this year. That is when Volvo plans to unveil its remote diagnostic system. When equipment breaks down in the field, the new technology will enable a service technician at Chadwick-BaRoss to accurately diagnose the problem via satellite and order needed parts almost instantly. While the company has no plans to mothball its fleet of 20-plus service vehicles anytime soon, remote diagnostics promise to reduce the customers’ down time considerably. “We sell and service equipment that operates in extremely hostile environments,” said Welch. “The manufacturer’s quality and reliability play a big role in keeping our customers’ operations profitable. We back that up with a great team that really knows the customers’ businesses and understands how important it is to keep that equipment working.”
Tending the roots
Beyond the world of heavy equipment, Chadwick- BaRoss has a long history of extraordinary generosity and service to the community. In the mid-1960s, co-founder Dick Chadwick served a term as president of Maine Good Roads Association, the forerunner of the Maine Better Transportation Association. Robert BaRoss, one of the two former owners for whom the company was named, established deep roots in the community, serving on the board of the Associated General Contractors of Maine (forerunner of the Associated Constructors of Maine) and giving of his time to many other industry and community organizations. BaRoss and David Costanzo, former vice president of sales and now retired, have both been recipients of the MBTA’s Transportation Achievement Award. Costanzo, who also served a term as MBTA president, was a tireless volunteer, bringing his infectious enthusiasm and goodwill to every project and activity he worked on, from membership and the educational foundation to the annual golf tournament, as well as fundraising for bond campaigns.
The Chadwick-BaRoss legacy for community service has continued with the company’s current leadership. George Corey has been an active supporter of the industry since he became president of the company in 1998. He has served on the MBTA board for several years, and both he and newly appointed president Welch have been strong supporters of the organization’s advocacy efforts, its infrastructure fund and the educational foundation. The company is one of two grand sponsors for the annual convention and are among the first to step up to the plate when resources are needed.
Costanzo said that Chadwick-BaRoss’s support of MBTA and its mission comes from an appreciation for the role transportation plays in a strong regional economy. “Maine’s not in the middle of the country, we’re stuck up on one end, and a good transportation system is central to our ability to do business. It’s vital for tourism, and if we’re going to hold on to what manufacturing business the state still has.” He also admitted his involvement in MBTA has not been entirely altruistic and spoke fondly of the friendships and sense of community he enjoyed during his work with the organization. “It’s important to have fun, too.”
With five locations and a large number of models to manage, the Chadwick-BaRoss management team needs to be adept at reading the economy and planning. “You have to think pretty far into the future,” said Corey. He said the recent lack of highway funding has definitely been felt at their end of the industry, but much of the slack was picked up in the past two years with the boom in the residential housing and commercial markets. That has meant stocking more of the smaller loaders and excavators. They expect the residential market to cool somewhat in the coming year, but the commercial market to remain strong. They are hopeful that Maine will get its highway maintenance program back on track soon, as well.
Uncertainty in the construction industry makes reliable equipment all the more important, said Welch. He said that when a construction firm is shuttling manpower and equipment between more, often smaller jobs, “reliability and service really matter.” Providing New England customers with top of the line equipment and outstanding customer service – that is precisely the niche in the market Chadwick-BaRoss intends to continue filling in the years to come.