AUGUSTA, Maine — An annual study of the nation’s roads and bridges indicates Maine continues to lose ground, dropping to 32nd in the nation from 29th in last year’s report. Maine peaked at 15th best in the nation in 2000.
“It’s been a continuing slide,” said David Hartgen, author of the study by his consulting firm, the Hartgen Group, for the Reason Foundation. “But the data does lag and is principally from 2008, so it does not reflect the recovery act funding or the state bond issues that were passed. It is important to point out that while overall the state has slipped, it has made some improvements.”
For example, the state is among those earning top rankings in the nation for both rural and urban interstate highways and improved its ranking from 43rd to 36th in bridge deficiency and moved from 10th to fifth in the cost of administration of the Department of Transportation.
But, for its upkeep of rural highways, Maine was nearly at the bottom on the list, at 47th in the nation.
Hartgen is a retired professor of transportation studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and has been the author of the annual study of how all the states compare in the management of its resources to assure adequate roads and bridges. He visits Maine frequently, most recently in June, and lived in Orono for several years where his late father, Vincent Hartgen, was a well-known art professor at the University of Maine.
“There is no question that the roads are deteriorating from where they were,” he said. “I saw that driving around when I was up in June. But that is happening across the country, not just in Maine.”
Hartgen said all states are struggling with higher costs of the materials used to maintain and build roads as well as higher costs of materials for bridge repair and replacement.
Maine Transportation Commissioner David Cole, who described the Hartgen report as “the standard” in an interview two years ago, said that while his agency closely reads the report, he believes that some of the measures used in the study unfairly hurt the state’s ranking.
“We get dinged for having rural roads that are 11 feet wide and professor Hartgen believes they should be 12-feet wide,” he said. Cole also said there is a significant difference between what is rural in Connecticut and what is rural in Maine, and there’s a lot less use of rural Maine highways than similar roads in a more populous state.
But Cole was pleased the state was among those tied for the top spot for both types of interstate highway and the improvement in what he called the “lean” ranking of administrative costs.
“I think when you see the data from last year and this in a future report you will see us doing even better,” he said.
Cole said the interstate system is the “backbone” of the state’s economy and, along with bridge repairs, has been the top priority of DOT for the past few years.
Maria Fuentes, executive director of the Maine Better Transportation Association, said while the state has “done some things right” the inescapable fact is the state has continued to drop in the overall ratings, particularly where rural highways are concerned.
“Anyone who lives in rural Maine will attest to the fact that we have a lot of work to do on those roads and in fact, some are unsafe,” she said.
Rep. Edward Mazurek, D-Rockland, is the House co-chairman of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee. He said the poor ranking of rural roads should not be a surprise to anyone. He said the federal government provides most of the funding for the interstate while the state has the responsibility for the “feeder” roads that lead to the interstate.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize we have 8,000 miles of state roads that we have to maintain and that is almost as much as the other five New England states combined,” he said.
Rep. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, a member of the committee, said parts of the report are confusing. He disputes Cole’s claim that the agency is spending money wisely and efficiently.
“When you go by a road project and you see two guys working and six watching them work, that is not a wise use of our money,” he said.
Thomas said part of the solution would be to re-examine transportation related revenues. He said the highway fund pays for half the cost of the state police when studies have shown the state police spend much less than that on highway-related enforcement.
“And when they write a ticket, that money goes to the general fund,” he said. “It should go to the highway fund.”
Fuentes said lawmakers will need to look at all funding options because the state’s economy depends on the ability to ship goods in and out of the state, and that means more than having a quality interstate highway system. She said lawmakers will be faced with raising new revenues or shifting state spending priorities if the state roads and bridges are going to be adequately addressed.
“You wonder how bad things are going to have to get,” she said.
Mazurek said that while he has heard a lot of opposition to any fuel tax increases in the past, the poor condition of rural roads is starting to change some minds.
“Some people are now beginning to realize that if they want a good road system, they are going to have to pay for it,” he said.