Those occasional fluorescent orange bump signs on Route 15 from the Guilford-Abbot line to Jackman could almost be considered a cruel joke to drivers.
A better sign to be posted at each end of the highway in those communities might be: “Amusement ride next 30 miles; ride the humps, dodge the potholes, zigzag over the cracks and watch for carnage left behind by previous motorists, such as blown tires and picnic coolers that bounced out from the beds of pickup trucks.”
For a region that depends upon that stretch of road for its economy via the tourist trade, there are sections of Route 15 that are downright appalling.
The message was conveyed once again to state officials Tuesday when Greenville Town Manager John Simko spoke during a public hearing by the Legislature’s Transportation Committee in Augusta.
Simko, who has been trying to get the road rebuilt over the past several years, also presented a petition signed by 2,491 people seeking the Route 15 improvements, where needed, by 2013. The petition signers, who had used the road over a six-month period in 2009, represented 406 towns, 29 states and two countries.
“If the Moosehead economy is truly driven by tourism, then what are we saying to our visitors when we have road conditions like this?” Simko asked Wednesday. He said the petition was “pretty telling.”
Mark Latti, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, said the Moosehead Lake region petition isn’t the only one the department has received. Other areas of the state have submitted petitions to have their roads reconstructed over the years. He said the department does what it can with the money it receives each year.
DOT has budgeted $97 million this year and another $97 million next year for pavement preservation projects, Latti said Wednesday. Included in the 2010 funding are five miles of Route 15 from the intersection of the Elliotville Road to the Monson-Shirley line, a project expected to cost $1 million.
Simko said he appreciates the fact that the section, arguably the worst stretch, will be done in 2010, but that he worries the work won’t last. The “mill and fill” project, which will involve a new surface over the same road base, will likely yield the same type of heaving now in place, he said.
“I don’t want the DOT to go in and do that project and think, ‘There, that section is all done,’ and then five to 10 years later it’s the same as it is now. That’s a concern to us,” he said.
Rep. Douglas Thomas, R-Ripley, a member of the Transportation Committee who attended the public hearing, sympathized with Simko on Wednesday. Thomas, who called Route 15 a “goat trail,” said he believes there is a “carefully orchestrated plan” behind DOT’s delay in rebuilding Route 15 and other roads.
“I think they’re squeezing us for a gas tax [increase],” he said. “If we give in, they’ve found a formula to get what they want out of us. All they’ve got to do is stop working on our roads.”
Thomas also questioned why DOT would increase its funding for bridges from $50 million to more than $100 million this year. “We’re overdoing bridges and we’re drastically underdoing road construction,” he said.
DOT is spending $65 million to replace the Veterans Memorial Bridge between Portland and South Portland, and plans to spend $500,000 to build a bike trail in Unity, yet DOT can’t fund road construction projects in central and northern Maine, Thomas said.
Latti disputed Thomas’ assessment that DOT was delaying projects. He said the national publication Congressional Quarterly ranked Maine No. 1 in the nation for getting federal stimulus projects out to bid, which shows DOT means business.
The bike trail funds have been set aside specifically for that purpose and can’t be used for roadwork, Latti said. The bridge funds came after the Minneapolis bridge collapse in August 2007 when Gov. John Baldacci ordered DOT to review all of the state’s bridges, he said.
As a result of that review, 246 bridges were placed on a watch list, meaning they were either in danger of being closed or posted with weight restrictions within the next 10 years if nothing were done.
Before the Minneapolis bridge collapse, the state had $50 million to $60 million a year budgeted for bridge repair, and at that rate most of those bridges would have to be posted or closed because there wouldn’t be enough money, Latti said, adding that the funding was increased to $110 million to address those deficiencies.
He said the 2,000-foot-long Veterans Memorial Bridge had to be closed twice last year because portions of the pavement fell through.
The more than 65-year-old bridge will be replaced this summer using bond funds.
While Simko said he understands the need to keep bridges safe, he also believes the state needs to keep that same focus on highways.
“I think it’s important to consider the unmet needs of the Moosehead Lake region — the only public road which brings travelers to and from the region — when contemplating the funding of road improvement projects statewide,” Simko said. “This entire section is the road traveled by the tourists who constitute the economic lifeblood for the Moosehead Lake region, as well as by the delivery trucks and contracted laborers which supply the goods and services for those visiting the region.”