Leaders from at least 60 towns will meet today in Augusta to discuss a tentative state proposal to upgrade about 2,229 miles of single-lane state roads before making their maintenance a local responsibility, officials said Wednesday.
Under the present arrangement, towns and the Maine Department of Transportation share maintenance duties on 5,476 lane miles of major and minor collector roads with the state paying for capital improvements such as paving on the roads in summer and the municipalities plowing them in winter, said Kate Dufour, a legislative advocate with the meeting’s host, the Maine Municipal Association.
A committee of local and state officials appointed by the Legislature is considering recommending that the state assume all maintenance duties for the 3,247 lane miles of major collector roads while municipalities oversee all maintenance, including capital improvements and paving, of the 2,229 miles of minor collector roads, Dufour said.
The state would upgrade the minor roads to a 10-year standard for about $305 million before the swap would occur, she added.
The proposal is not final. The committee is due to report to the Legislature on Jan. 15, Dufour said, but leaders of at least two municipalities, Enfield and Howland, are leery of the idea, while Lincoln Town Manager Lisa Goodwin is more neutral.
A northern Penobscot County town just south of Lincoln along Interstate 95, Howland would, under the committee’s proposal, take control of just over 20 lane miles of road in exchange for about $50,000 in annual state maintenance funds, Howland Town Manager Jane Jones said.
“The numbers don’t work,” Jones said Wednesday. “To properly care for 20 miles of roadway, well, it cannot be done for $50,000. It plain does not compute. What you are doing [in accepting the plan] is setting yourself up for failure. You either ask taxpayers to take more of a burden on [with higher taxes] or you face the erosion of your infrastructure.”
“For some communities, it is either an expense-neutral proposition or something for which they would get more than adequate funding,” Jones said. “For towns like Howland and, I expect, a lot of rural communities, it is more expensive to maintain those roads because there are far more miles to maintain and there is a much smaller tax base over which to spread those expenses.”
The Legislature formed the committee more than a year ago to improve efficiencies and customer service for taxpayers. DOT defines a major collector road, in part, as a connector between two larger towns that receives more traffic than a minor collector, which is classified as rural or the least-trafficked of state roads. A lane mile is one mile of a single-lane road.
Enfield Town Manager Michael Pearson said the proposal would mean his town, which abuts Howland, would be responsible for maintaining Routes 188 and 155 within town lines, far more than the town can handle financially.
“That would be like from the Howland bridge to the town office,” Pearson said, “or just about every place in town except for Route 2.”
Lincoln’s Goodwin said she can see advantages and disadvantages to the proposal.
“What we get in subsidy won’t pay for the maintenance of the roads. It will be more burden on our public works departments,” she said.
“The advantage is for the citizens of the town because their customer service [in dealing with state road problems] will improve because the local municipalities will handle the maintenance,” Goodwin said. “You will get a quicker response from them, and you will get someone who definitely knows the area and its issues.”
Leaders in smaller, more rural towns generally fear that even if the state upgrades the roads to last 10 years, the cost of doing minor repairs would be overwhelming. The leaders would also have to place a lot of faith in the Legislature, Dufour said.
“Municipalities are being asked to trust whether that money will be there,” Dufour said. “Once the plan is enacted, will the Legislature change the rules in midgame? That’s one of the questions people have.”
Jones and Pearson said they don’t doubt that the Legislature will renege on the deal eventually.
“Our message is that we don’t want the roads back,” Pearson said. “At one point in the past the state ‘turned back’ roads to the towns and didn’t supply the towns with enough money to take care of them. We don’t want that to happen again.
“I am sure that is what most municipalities will tell them,” he said.
“The state has an extraordinarily poor history of meeting its obligations in these kinds of arrangements,” Jones said. “There are whole groups of these state-local partnerships in which the state [makes promises] and then, as the financial squeeze comes, the state is unable or unwilling to meet its obligations and then expects the communities will step up to the plate and make up the difference.”
Jones said, “The local property tax is the only place we can go [for the funding], and the local taxpayer is not able to sustain any more transference of taxes to meet this local need.”
The committee called the meeting to explain its proposal and hear from local leaders, Dufour said.