Alton voters reject state’s offer to upgrade road used as detour

Posted Oct. 10, 2008, at 9:25 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6 a.m.

ALTON, Maine — Voters on Thursday night rejected the state’s proposal to share the cost of upgrading Tannery Road, a 5-mile paved and gravel byway that runs between Route 43 in Hudson and Route 16 in Alton.

Because of the rejected contract, some heavy trucks that now pass over a small bridge on Route 16 in Old Town will have to take a 50-mile detour when the bridge is closed for repairs next summer.

The vote, cast on paper ballots, was 45 opposed to the project and 34 in favor.

The state Department of Transportation hoped to use Tannery Road as an official detour for heavy trucks during the Route 16 bridge replacement project, including approximately 200 trucks a day headed for Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town. While lighter vehicles will be detoured along Interstate 95 during the three-month project expected to begin in June 2009, federal restrictions prohibit vehicles weighing more than 80,000 pounds from using that highway.

Heavy trucks headed for the landfill will be directed along Route 2 north to Howland and then south on 116 to get to Juniper Ridge.

The Tannery Road detour proposal called for the town to reimburse the state $100,000 from existing municipal funds for completing road repairs and improvements. Selectmen sought an added $30,000 for replacing some culverts and other improvements before the state’s build-up of the roadbed in preparation for the increased traffic. The state’s share of the cost of the project was expected to be more than $160,000.

Voters turned down a similar proposal at a town meeting in August. Because only nine voters participated in that process, selectmen revised the proposal and brought it up again Thursday, hoping for increased participation.

About 80 people attended the meeting at the Alton municipal building. Nate Benoit, assistant bridge project manager for the Maine DOT, tried to assure town residents that the state would leave Tannery Road in better shape than it is in now. He said any problems stemming from the road’s use as a detour for heavy trucks would be resolved promptly and that residents should “have some trust” in the state’s intentions.

“We, the state, are not here to stick it to the town,” he said. “We’re trying to do the right thing.”

But in a spirited discussion, residents challenged Benoit and his project, questioning the state’s ability to enforce truck weights and speed limits, criticizing the design of the planned roadbed reinforcement and pointing to the overall poor condition of state-maintained roads in the area as proof of the DOT’s inability to keep its commitments.

Alton resident Don Ellis said superficial repairs to the surface of Tannery Road would be futile once heavy trucks start using the road. “It won’t hold up because the gravel base is not sound,” he said. “That subbase hasn’t been redone in 70 years. We won’t get any improvement out of all that money we’d be spending.”

Tannery Road resident Amanda Willey said she initially opposed the project. She and others use the quiet road for walking, bike riding and other activities. “I don’t want it to be fixed up … so there won’t be a lot of traffic,” she said. But after more consideration, Willey said, she decided to support the proposal in order to keep local businesses from having to take the long detour to Howland. “If it was just the landfill trucks, I’d vote no, but it’s our local businesses, too,” she said.

Others pointed out that if the town waits another five years, taxpayers would foot the entire cost of repairing Tannery Road, with an estimated price tag of $250,000 and no help from the state. Even if the road is legally posted against heavy trucks, said Brian Engstrom, chair of the town’s Board of Selectmen, enforcement will be difficult since the rural town relies on the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office and the Maine State Police for patrolling.

After the vote was counted, Engstrom, who supported the project, said selectmen would meet soon to discuss whether to post Tannery Road. He said the state’s proposal would not be revisited. “We gave the voters two chances on this,” he said. “So that’s the end of it.”

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