Fix It Now! profile
By John Melrose
The Bold Coast Scenic Byway extends 125 miles within Washington County and exemplifies one of the East Coast’s last vestiges of peace, tranquility and unspoiled ocean-side beauty. These qualities are a great draw to travelers looking for a place to relax and put their mind at ease. A transportation system equal to these attractions that also supports the region’s natural resource based economy is vital to the county’s prosperity.
With an area greater than Delaware and Rhode Island put together, Washington County boasts a population of just over 32,000 with 55 percent of its residents living in only 10 of the 44 towns and two cities in the county. The rural nature of the region is obvious. The county is home to 6.4 percent of all state highways in Maine yet these roads carry only 3.4 percent of all non-interstate vehicle miles traveled statewide.
Prospects for growth are not evident in annual traffic counts conducted by MaineDOT. Over the past decade, total county traffic volume declined by approximately 16 percent, the highest decline for any county in Maine.
Ironically, to reverse this decline, a first-rate transportation system is needed. Nothing makes this point clearer than the successes realized through the partnership of the Port of Eastport and the Woodland Pulp mill, the county’s largest employer.
Washington County’s priority 1 and 2 highways are Routes 1, 1A, 9 and 190 representing 6.6 percent of all such miles in the state. Yet, 8.3 percent of all “F” rated priority 1 and 2 miles in the state are located in the county. By contrast, “F” rated miles on priority 3 roads are below what would be expected, with just 5.2 percent rated “F,” although 7 percent receive a “D” rating. Priority 3 roads include Route 1 north of Calais and a section connecting Milbridge, Cherryfield and Harrington as well as Routes 6, 182, 193 and 189.
The “D” and “F” ratings in Washington County for priority 1, 2 and 3 highways relate entirely to “condition” and “safety” issues with no “service” issues noted for these roads. There are 77.88 miles of priority 1, 2 and 3 highways in the county rated “D” or “F” for condition and 83.72 miles so rated for safety concerns.
MaineDOT has made substantial progress in modernizing Routes 1, 9 and 190 over 25 years. Route 190 into Eastport is in excellent condition, and now MaineDOT and the community are turning their attention to upgrading County Road, which connects Route 190 to the port facilities at Estes Head. Route 1 from Perry to Calais is in good condition following numerous reconstruction projects.
However, other sections of Route 1 need attention. At least three sections between Jonesboro and Edmunds totaling 10.17 miles are still in substandard condition. Also, a 3.4-mile section on Route 1A between Milbridge and Harrington is in very poor condition and known for ripping off oil pans during the most recent spring thaw. MaineDOT acknowledges each of these projects in its current three-year work plan, but none are scheduled in 2014. With a combined price tag likely to exceed $18 million and the current state of MaineDOT finances, full funding for 2015-16 is a concern.
Route 9 throughout the county is largely built to modern day standard, but is at risk. The concern for this – and other improved roads in the county – is the condition of the pavement. Currently these roads face losing the value of the investments made due to insufficient preservation paving. This circumstance unfortunately underscores MaineDOT’s contention that it has a preservation paving budget that is falling 41 percent short of need.
Also of relevance to the county is the proposed Route 9 and I-395 connector in Penobscot County that would improve safety, reduce travel time and move heavy truck traffic out of downtown settings.
A further concern is the county’s lack of paved shoulders and passing and turning lanes along sections of Routes 1 and 1A and other roads used by freight and recreational users. The Washington County Council of Governments plans to address the shoulder concerns. The soft, sandy shoulder material common in the county easily drifts away from the pavement edge. This creates hazards for motorists and bicyclists and presents environmental concerns associated with run-off. Soft shoulders are commonplace on state highways connecting Routes 1 and 9, as well as on the routes traveling down peninsulas to Machiasport and Jonesport.
Half of the highways in Washington County are split equally between the priority 4 and 5 classifications. State goals for these roads focus almost exclusively on pavement treatments so most will only receive periodic maintenance paving or “skinny mix.” Some priority 4 roads might deserve reclassification to a priority 3 to assure a level of repair more consistent with the use of the road. For example, Routes 214 and 191 are classified as priority 4, but truckers moving between the Port of Eastport and the Woodland pulp mill use these roads frequently to reduce their travel times.
There are 101 bridges of 20 feet or greater in the county representing 4.2 percent of all bridges statewide. Of these bridges, a disproportionately high share, 22 percent, are rated structurally deficient by the Federal Highway Administration and a disproportionately low share, 6 percent, are rated functionally obsolete. The most significant bridge need in the county is the Beals Island Bridge that passes over the Moosebec Reach at the Beals-Jonesport town line. This bridge is currently under engineering review by MaineDOT but no schedule is set for construction. This is one of MaineDOT’s identified “extraordinary” bridge needs with an estimated price tag of $20 million.
Washington County has five general aviation air strips located in Deblois, Eastport, Lubec, Machias and Princeton with none offering commercial air service. Rail is limited to Calais and Baileyville entering from Canada. There is abandoned state owned rail still in place on the eastern end of the old Calais Branch that extends from Calais to Charlotte. An excellent all-season, multi-use trail, the Downeast Sunrise Trail, is in place on the balance of the former Calais rail line. The Port of Eastport Marine Terminal is located at Estes Head with a second breakwater pier located in downtown Eastport that is presently scheduled for a major rehabilitation. International ferry service runs from Eastport to Deer Isle, New Brunswick. A multitude of hiking trails are located throughout the county.
By far, the most ambitious transportation investment proposed for the county comes from the Eastport Port Authority. The proposal is to re-establish freight rail service to Perry along the eastern end of the Calais Branch line to serve the port. A study of this proposal has already been performed and estimates the cost at $52 million.
The accomplishments realized to date by the Port of Eastport serve as a welcome reminder of the importance of having a vision, a can-do attitude and persistence in making transportation investments that grow the economy of this region and the state of Maine. The proposed project, and others like it, deserve serious consideration.