State 1st in use of stimulus

Posted June 24, 2009, at 10:17 p.m.

SABATTUS, Maine — Federal officials said Wednesday that Maine is the first state in the nation to pass several milestones for use of stimulus dollars flowing from Washington, D.C., for highway improvements and environmental cleanup projects.

Maine has committed 100 percent of the more than $130 million in stimulus money the state will receive for bridge and highway projects. That is well ahead of the benchmark set by federal officials of 50 percent of stimulus funding committed to specific projects by June 29.

The state also has committed 50 percent of the nearly $50 million Maine will receive for drinking water projects and wastewater infrastructure.

“This is really a red-letter day for Maine,” Jonathan McDade, Maine division administrator for the Federal Highway Administration, said during a press event in Sabattus touting the state agencies’ track record so far. “They have really stepped up and shown themselves to be a model for other states.”

Gov. John Baldacci’s office estimates that 30 bridge or highway projects funded with stimulus dollars are under way, accounting for more than 750 jobs.

The largest single project — which is also the most controversial — is the $35.5 million reconstruction of Interstate 295 between Brunswick and Gardiner. DOT officials claim I-295’s road bed was crumbling internally, forcing the costly repairs.

Other projects either under way or being bid out include a $10.7 million reconstruction of slightly less than 3 miles of Route 1A near Ellsworth and a $5 million substructure rehabilitation of the Deer Isle-Sedgwick Bridge.

“Our goal has been to take advantage of these funds for much-needed projects to put people to work,” Baldacci said.

Tuesday’s event was held after several weeks of intense debate over how to pay for upkeep of Maine’s crumbling roads. Lawmakers rejected several proposals to increase Maine’s gas tax during the recession in order to make more headway on the long list of road repairs.

Then last week, the Maine Department of Transportation announced that it was canceling more than 130 “maintenance paving” projects throughout the state — including all of the projects planned for 2010 — because the maintenance coffers had run dry.

Maine is slated to receive $131 million in highway funding from the economic stimulus package that passed Congress earlier this year. Stimulus funding was intended for “shovel-ready projects,” but it cannot be used for just any road repairs.

State officials are restricted to using that money for long-term repairs on federal highways or major capital improvements of roads or bridges, such as rebuilding or widening projects. Stimulus dollars cannot be used to patch potholes, fill in frost heave cracks or put a thin layer of asphalt over deteriorating roads — in other words, the so-called “maintenance paving” projects canceled by the DOT due to insufficient funding.

“If I could have used federal stimulus money to pave more of those roads, I would have. But I don’t make the rules,” DOT commissioner David Cole said afterward.

Maine is also slated to receive $29 million for wastewater infrastructure projects as well as $19.5 million for drinking water projects. Again, Maine was the first state in the nation to commit at least 50 percent of its water-related stimulus funds.

About half of the wastewater-related projects involve separating sewer and storm-water infrastructure to prevent raw sewage from spilling out into rivers and streams during heavy storms.

The city of Bangor also will receive more than $2.5 million for storm-water management in the Penjajawoc and Birch streams, both of which are polluted largely due to runoff from nearby development.

Machias also will receive money to upgrade the city’s wastewater treatment plant, which state environment commissioner David Littell said is key to eventually reopening to harvesters several clam flats now closed due to polluted runoff.

Littell said the federal funding would help address some of the backlog of wastewater and drinking water infrastructure projects in the state.

A list of the stimulus money slated to come to Maine and how the funds are being allocated is available online at www.maine.gov/recovery.

kmiller@bangordailynews.net

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