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Potholes and posted roads

Maine highways took a beating this winter and spring. Potholes and posted roads were the topic at the water cooler and a regular subject for TV news crews, editorial writers and cartoonists. In the midcoast region of the state, the condition of local highways inspired frustrated citizens to threaten a tax revolt. Still, weather is not the only factor to blame. Continued underfunding of the state’s highway program is the real culprit.

By Kathryn Buxton

In the annals of road maintenance, the winter of 2008 is likely to go down as a memorable one. Much of the state recorded snowfall in the triple digits. Road crews struggled to clear snow and cope with a road salt shortage. As the snow began to melt, potholes began to crop up on local highways like dandelions in spring time. Drivers complained about the cost of popped tires and front end alignments. MaineDOT and public works departments launched a cold patch counter attack, investing more than $3.2 million in quick fixes to try and stop potholes from expanding – and forestalling the roads’ further deterioration until warmer weather when permanent repairs could be made.

As if to add insult to injury, MaineDOT and municipalities began posting roads throughout the state in March. Posting is the practice of restricting the weight of vehicles allowed over a road to protect it while the substructure thaws and dries out. Posting is generally used to protect Maine’s backlog of “unbuilt” roads, highways that have not been constructed to modern standards and lack adequate drainage.

Together potholes and posted roads are an expensive combination of budget busters for the state, municipalities, Maine citizens and businesses. Potholes cost the state in added maintenance cost – the labor and materials or “cold patch” necessary to fill them. Potholes cost drivers and businesses significantly in increased vehicle repair costs from new tires to front end alignments. One news channel this spring put that cost at more than $400 per vehicle.

Posted roads present significant hurdles for businesses throughout the state, as well. Many of those businesses are located in
rural areas where state roads have not yet been upgraded to modern design standards. From fish farmers and boat builders downeast to loggers and other agricultural businesses in northern and western Maine, work often comes to a standstill when a highway is posted. Lately, as postings have increased in southern and midcoast Maine, a new group of businesses are experiencing the cost of Maine’s aging highway structures: construction firms and manufacturers are having to curtail work or make costly changes in how they haul their goods to market.

Posting trends

The annual practice of restricting vehicles over 23,000 lbs. on old, unbuilt roads affected approximately 1,640 miles of state highways this year, according to Dave Bernhardt, director of MaineDOT’s Bureau of Maintenance and Operations. (Maine towns and cities also post a significant number of miles of local roads, but there is no accurate accounting of these local postings.) The policy, said Bernhardt, helps protect the highway until the state has funding to rebuild the road – which can cost up to $1 million per mile.

While the majority of posted roads are in rural areas, the posting of Route 112 in heavily populated Cumberland County represents that new trend. This year, there were nearly 20 different routes posted in Cumberland County. In 2002, there were only six. For their part, MaineDOT worked hard to get ahead of the problem, giving plenty of advance warning to businesses and municipalities whenever possible.

“We’ve tried to be very proactive with communities,” said Bernhardt who said he and his staff spend time in the winter alerting businesses and towns where new postings will take place. “For some businesses, it helps to be able to prepare for it.”

Economic hardship

Knowing in advance that MaineDOT was likely to post Route 112 hasn’t helped Michael White of White Bros. Inc., a Westbrook-based general contractor. White knows that every day Route 112 stays posted, it costs the family business dearly. The road was posted in March of this year, restricting its use to vehicles under 23,000 lbs. The highway is the only access to one of the pits owned by the company. The state began posting the highway last year, and White’s voice grows noticeably tense as he talks about how a mile-and-a-half of posted highway will this year cost the business thousands of dollars.

“It’s not just an inconvenience, it’s an economic hardship,” said White, a former MBTA board president who said that because of the posting, White Bros. has to buy materials from another contractor.

“We already bought and paid for that material, so our costs increase when we have to purchase material from others or go to another White Bros. pit further away,” said White. Depending on the job’s location and the material needed, it could double the cost at a time when White said the company cannot afford to wait for the state to reopen the highway. March, April and May are critical months in the construction industry. That is when the snow melts, and crews have access to work sites after the long winter. Maine’s construction season is short, so being productive means being able to use every day of the season.

But the added cost from the posting of Route 112 doesn’t end there, according to White. There are the added fuel costs and the extra time it takes to haul every load – the pit where White now has to buy sand, gravel and other material is several miles further from their job sites. It also hurts the company’s productivity. “If each of our trucks runs one or two fewer trips a day, that adds up,” said White who added that the company’s increased fuel costs associated with the posting have been significant this year. “Fuel is getting to be a precious, precious commodity,” said White.

How those costs tally over the posted road season – and over the years – causes businesses like White Bros. to worry about their long-term competitiveness. This is the second year the road has been posted, and that section of highway is not planned for reconstruction in the near future.

Limiting factors

For Maine’s forest products industry, the economic challenge resulting from posted roads and potholes presents a more complex picture of hardships. This year, rapidly rising fuel costs have added a new level of concern for industry officials. Pat Sirois of the Maine Forest Products Council said that over the years, as the industry has adopted more “environmentally astute” harvesting practices, the production seasons have shortened, with a long mud season in the spring and another to a lesser degree in the fall. The winter season is the most productive, because the frozen ground allows access to areas otherwise inaccessible.

In March, when roads are typically posted, the ground is still frozen in the forests. Harvesting is still possible but trucking, because of posted roads, is the limiting factor, said Sirois. He said the industry really suffers if there is a February thaw and the roads are posted mid-season. Nevertheless he notes that posting is necessary to protect the condition of roads not built to handle heavy traffic during the spring thaw.

This year, the industry has been hit with a triple whammy: posted roads, high diesel prices and potholes at a time when businesses are particularly vulnerable. “We’re at the front line of things. The price of rice has gone up, but paper and lumber haven’t,” said Sirois – and they aren’t likely to go up, he says because of the slump in the housing industry.

“The roads are terrible right now. I’ve never seen [the potholes] so bad – they’re bad even on the interstate – and that is hard on equipment and trucks,” said Sirois. For truckers carrying a full load of logs, potholes are “a fuel-efficiency issue and a safety problem if you have trucks dodging potholes.” He said that truckers’ fuel costs have increased even more because they have to log extra miles to avoid posted roads and drive in a lower gear to minimize the damage done by potholes.

Two-sided coin

Greg Dore, MBTA’s newly elected president and director of public works for the town of Skowhegan, said that posted roads and potholes are really two sides of the same funding coin. Skowhegan and Somerset County have their share of both. The MaineDOT web page showing a road map of Somerset County postings this spring resembled a bowl of unruly pasta, but that is nothing new to Dore. He said while the state may call some of them “highways,” they are really just old buggy paths that have been paved over.

“A lot of Maine’s rural roads used to be for horse and buggies. They were dirt and come spring someone would put down gravel to help with drainage. A few years later, maybe someone came out and threw down some tar and then pavement. . . they weren’t built to any standard,” said Dore.

He said that as a municipality, Skowhegan budgets to rebuild approximately one mile of these old roads under its jurisdiction every year. But there has been little money available on the state level to address unbuilt state roads in the region.

The lack of state transportation dollars is having a cumulative effect on other important routes in the region, he said, and that is where the 2008 pothole season comes into play. Dore spoke about US Route 201, a major commercial thoroughfare in the region that was covered in potholes this year. The road is an important commercial route for the region that carries more than 22,000 vehicles per day.

“Now that’s a ‘built’ road, but it hasn’t been overlayed in 12 or 14 years,” said Dore who added that funding shortfalls at the state level have caused the pavement to deteriorate. As a result, the highway suffered badly during the spring thaws and crews were out patching the same potholes repeatedly this spring.

The incoming MBTA president said that he sees this as an issue that will continue to plague all regions of the state as legislators and municipalities struggle with tight budgets. But it is one that the state has to continue to address.

“The shape 201’s in is directly related to age and maintenance, and it is the same all over Maine. The potholes are a budget issue just like our posted roads,” Dore said.

 

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