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Failing grades

A new ‘report card’ issued by the Maine Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers finds that Maine’s infrastructure ranks below average – and that Maine’s system of roads and bridges are on the brink of failure. Some believe there is no better time to school the public on infrastructure need.
 
By Kathryn Buxton
 
In recent years, it has become generally accepted wisdom that Maine’s transportation infrastructure is badly in need of repair. But just how desperate the situation is has been made clearer, thanks to a new “report card” issued by the Maine Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).
 
In mid-December, the organization rolled out the Report Card for Maine’s Infrastructure, a report that found major areas of concern among the state’s transportation network – chiefly roads and bridges – that are underfunded, pose a high risk of failure and threaten to negatively impact the state’s economy.
 
“If your kid brought this report card home, you’d send him back to school,” said Maine Senator Elizabeth Mitchell (D-Kennebec County). Mitchell, the legislature’s newly elected senate president, spoke at the briefing in Augusta on December 10 where the report card was unveiled.
 
The reason for Maine’s failing transportation grades is obvious if you follow the money, said Maine Section ASCE President Erik J. Wiberg, P.E.
 
“Maine spends one-fifth of the New England average on a per-mile basis on capital improvements and one-third of the regional average on maintenance,” said Wiberg in an interview with Maine Trails. “That is symptomatic of Maine’s reduced priority of funding that goes to transportation” — funding that has fallen from 25 percent of all state funding in 1976 to less than 10 percent in 2008.
 
“To think that the investment we have made in these critical arterial roads over the past 50 years will be lost due to lack of care is unconscionable,” said John Hodgkins, P.E. (retired). Hodgkins was an ASCE Maine Report Card peer review committee member and is a former MaineDOT director of project development.
 
Not good enough for the team
Twelve ASCE infrastructure area leaders, a team of civil engineers, and industry experts volunteered hundreds of hours to review public records and evaluate infrastructure in Maine. They analyzed the following fundamental components of each infrastructure area: existing conditions; capacity; operations and maintenance or deferred maintenance; public safety and security; risk and consequences of failure; and current and projected levels of funding.
 
The report card graded infrastructure in a total of 14 different categories, including six transportation areas. Among all categories, Maine’s roads ranked the worst (D). Bridges, contaminated site remediation, dams and municipal wastewater fared only slightly better with a D+ awarded to each. Maine’s airports were given a B-; railroads received a C; and passenger transportation and waterways and ports each took home a C-.
 
The organization gave an overall grade of C- to Maine’s infrastructure.
 
Even with relatively high grades in some areas — and a collective grade that might keep a high school student off the football team — Wiberg warned against complacence. He said the grades present a concern because collectively they show an aging system that is “on the cusp of increasing risk of failure when we need a system that is stable, robust and reliable.”
 
“The health, safety and welfare of our citizens are directly tied to the quality of our infrastructure,” said Wiberg. “Maine’s economy is built on its infrastructure, and current and forecasted funding is inadequate to meet the needs. If Maine is to grow economically and sustain its quality of life, investment in infrastructure must be a higher priority.”
 
First of many
The 2008 Maine Infrastructure Report Card is intended to be the first of a series that will be issued every three to five years. The Maine Section’s report follows a format established by the national ASCE. The Washington, D.C.-based organization issued its first national survey of infrastructure condition in 1988. (The national report card was last issued in 2005 and is due to be updated in March 2009). Since 1998, several state chapters have released regional report cards. New Hampshire was the first New England state to do so in 2002 and most recently updated it in 2006. Maine was the second.
 
Casey Dinges, managing director of external affairs for the national ASCE, said state report cards like the one just completed in Maine have helped turn the tide and generate public awareness and funding of the infrastructure crisis in Pennsylvania, California and New York.
 
“Certainly in Pennsylvania, we have seen progress with Governor Rendell and with Governor Schwarzenegger in California and Mayor Bloomberg in New York,” said Dinges. “A report card like this can create momentum for change.”
 
Not just a ‘jobs generator’
More than 100 people were at the December 10th unveiling, and the event was featured in almost all of the state’s major television, radio and print media. That shows just what a hot topic infrastructure is right now.
 
The ASCE’s Dinges said, with the faltering economy and the Obama administration economic stimulus plan, there is a chance Maine and the other 49 states may get some federal funds to begin the long process of turning the situation around.
 
“We’re encouraged, but it is unfortunate that we have to be in a crisis before the issue takes off,” said Dinges. He said that the danger is in seeing infrastructure just as “a jobs generator,” and not making the commitment to a long-term program to maintain and modernize essential public assets.
 
At the Maine event, one Maine legislator took that thought further. Mitchell told the audience assembled about the efforts in the legislature to address the issue by allocating more than $400 million to state infrastructure needs.
 
“We stepped up as best as we could, but we’re looking for the federal government to be our partner in this,” said Mitchell. 

Maine’s transportation isn’t making the grade
The Maine Section ASCE’s 2008 Report Card ranked 14 critical infrastructure areas, including six aspects of the state’s transportation network. Among those six, airports ranked highest (B-) and roads ranked lowest (D).
 
Roads: D
Roads received a D due to conditions. Poor pavement has increased from only 2 percent of all MaineDOT roads in 1996 to over 26 percent in 2006. MaineDOT’s pavement preservation program for modern “built” roads, mostly arterials that carry more than half the state’s traffic, is funded at half of what is needed, resulting in the risk of many of those 2,100 miles falling into poor condition and requiring more costly improvements in the future.
 
Bridges: D+
Bridge conditions are expected to improve marginally over the next few years due to legislation passed in 2008 that provided additional funding for MaineDOT bridges. However, there is still more than $440-million gap in funding for MaineDOT bridges over the next 10 years. Currently, 34 percent of Maine’s bridges are listed as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, higher than the national average of 25 percent.
 
Railroads: C
Railroads continue to be under-utilized in Maine and further investment should facilitate higher use. Maine is currently 48th in the nation for freight tonnage moved by rail.
 
Ports & Railways: C-
Ports & Waterways have received major investments in the past few years, but require further investments in order to meet the projected demands of containerized cargo and the cruise industry.
 
Passenger transportation: C-
Passenger transportation has had a surge in demand over the past few years (over 113 percent growth from 2004 to 2006) with the increase in fuel costs. Transit, ferry, and passenger rail all require additional funding to meet rising demand. Only 55 percent of transit vehicles are considered in good condition.
 
Airports: B-
Airports have traditionally received 95 percent of their project funding from federal sources and conditions reflect this investment. A funding shortfall is projected of over $100 million for the next 20 years.

About the Maine Section ASCE:
The Maine Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers (Maine Section ASCE) represents more than 700 civil engineering professionals who live and work in Maine. Founded in 1852, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) represents more than 146,000 civil engineers worldwide and is America’s oldest national engineering society.
To view a copy of the complete report card and download the full report that includes the data used to make the assessments, visit www.maineasce.org.
 

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