State plans to revise road repair system

Posted July 23, 2010, at 8:27 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — State and local officials are discussing a major overhaul of Maine’s transportation policies, aiming to fix an outdated road maintenance system that those involved describe as inefficient and broken, resulting in poor customer service.

With tens of thousands of miles of roads and limited financial resources, officials are attempting to come up with a better way for state and local governments to share the responsibilities of maintaining Maine’s transportation network.

The problem now, officials say, is that Maine’s archaic classification system for roads means the state sometimes is forced to perform plowing, patching or other maintenance that would be better handled by the towns, and vice versa.

In other cases, municipalities and the state trade off maintenance responsibilities depending on the season, causing confusion for both transportation officials and the public.

“In summary, the current system appears broken and change is needed,” reads a progress report by a working group examining the issue.

In 2009, lawmakers directed the Maine Department of Transportation to work with the Maine Municipal Association as well as contractors to come up with a more efficient, less confusing classification system. A major although preliminary recommendation of the work group is switching to the more simplified federal classification system for roads rather than the current “state aid” system.

“The state aid system splits responsibilities between levels of government, leading to unclear roles, operational inefficiencies, finger pointing and poor customer service,” the progress report states. “This system should be phased out and eventually eliminated over time.”

After months of work, the group has drafted a proposal that, if implemented, likely would shift some of the nonwinter maintenance responsibilities for smaller state roads onto some towns. In return, those towns would receive more compensation from the state.

The Maine DOT in turn would assume more winter maintenance responsibilities on some of the more heavily used roads now plowed by towns. The state also would continue to perform major repairs or reconstruction jobs on many roads.

The result, according to the progress report, would be either the town or the state taking full responsibility for the road regardless of season.

“There is no easy answer,” said Michelle Beal, Ellsworth city manager and a member of the Highway System Simplification study group. “We are trying to save money and we are trying to improve the state’s infrastructure.”

Beal and other members of the study group stressed that the current proposal is only a draft and will be the subject of considerable research and discussion before a final report is presented to the Legislature this January. In order to take effect, any changes would have to gain approval of both lawmakers and the next governor.

“This is going to be a very well thought out, methodical approach and … a very collaborative approach,” said Pete Coughlan, director of the DOT’s community services division.

Some town officials already are expressing serious concerns about the proposal, however.

Machias Town Manager Chris Loughlin was among the several dozen municipal officials who attended a meeting in Augusta this week to hear about aspects of the proposal. After the meeting, Loughlin said he sees “no positives” in the new scenario for his town.

Under the current proposal, Machias would be classified as an “urban compact” area and would therefore have to assume plowing and other responsibilities on roughly 3½ miles of Route 1, Route 1A and several other state roads.

The town hypothetically would receive an additional $32,000 in reimbursement from the state. But Loughlin estimates it will cost the small town at least twice that amount to hire additional crews, upgrade storage facilities and purchase new equipment.

“In some of the larger towns, it may resolve some of their issues, but I don’t have any issues,” he said. “We’re a small town. We just don’t have the ability to absorb some of these things like a town of 6,000 or 10,000 people.”

In Ellsworth’s case, assuming more summer maintenance responsibilities on Route 3 or Route 1A through town likely would necessitate hiring additional crews, Beal said.

But Ellsworth already does some of the springtime maintenance, such as street sweeping, because the state can’t get to it before the tourists and motorcycles begin arriving, she said. Under the proposal, Ellsworth would get paid for that work.

But Beal acknowledged that the document is far from finished.

“There is more research that needs to be done” on the proposal, Beal said.

State Rep. Ed Mazurek of Rockland, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, said Friday that he believes the group’s work will lead to better roads and improved cooperation between localities and the state. He also praised the collaborative approach of the group.

“It’s encouraging,” Mazurek said. “They are attempting to do something that really needs to be done.”

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