Road Report Card

Posted Dec. 19, 2008, at 5:56 p.m.

The report card on Maine’s infrastructure issued recently by the local chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers is something like having Martha Stewart drop by for a visit the day before you planned to start your spring cleaning. The overall C- grade the engineers gave Maine’s infrastructure is probably accurate and a fair assessment of its deficiencies, but it comes at a time when state officials are well aware of what needs to be done, yet have little resources to do something about it.

Still, having a third party point out the decay in transportation, utility, education and other vital facilities and systems helps state government win public support for a plan of action. First on the “to do” list should be a reminder to spend liberally on essential infrastructure when times are good, rather than invent new initiatives and programs that suck up limited new money. Second on that list should be a commitment to realistically budget for regular maintenance, and to make adjustments when the cost of materials and labor increases, as was the case with road and bridge work in recent years.

In the ASCE report card, Maine’s roads received a D, the lowest grade over 14 categories evaluated in the state. That comes as no surprise to anyone who drives, nor does it surprise state Department of Transportation officials, who have been scrambling for three years to narrow, if not close, the gap between road needs and available funding.

President-elect Obama is proposing a new economic stimulus package aimed not at consumers but at just such infrastructure needs. Much of what Maine needs to repair and rebuild may be funded in this package. But the federal help will not be enough for the state to entirely catch up on transportation needs.

DOT regularly undertakes a comprehensive study of such needs, and it produces plans for the next two years, six years and 20 years that outline projected work. Though borrowing money for maintenance is not fiscally wise, a long-term bonding scheme may be the best way to address the problem. DOT put two bonds before voters in recent years, and they won easy passage from voters. A 10-year bond schedule might be accepted by voters if it resulted in an updated, safe and efficient transportation network.

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