AUGUSTA, Maine — The state’s top transportation official on Wednesday laid out a $765 million, two-year plan to improve the state’s highways, bridges and other transit systems, including improvements on interstate highways that will cost a tenth of the total.
Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt said more efficient use of limited funds will enable the state to do more despite slightly less spending in the two years starting July 1. Highway reconstruction funding alone will be 5 percent less, yet 20 percent more miles will be covered, said Bernhardt, a career DOT official who was appointed commissioner by Gov. Paul LePage with a mandate to economize.
“We are intent in making sure that Maine makes the most of our transportation dollars,” Bernhardt said.
Under the two-year plan, 1,763 miles of highways are to be improved. The total is on a par with the current two-year total and several hundred miles more than the previous total. It also includes 34 bridge replacements and 53 bridge rehabilitations, and $76 million for air, mass transit, harbor, rail and pedestrian-bicycle programs. About $75 million covers projects on Maine’s interstate highways, including 58 miles of repaving. For the most part, work under the two-year plan is to be done in the 2012 construction season.
Among the more localized projects outlined in the plan are the state’s $34 million share of replacing the Memorial Bridge connecting southern Maine with New Hampshire, and repaving 23 miles of U.S. Route 2 between Newport and Bangor, a stretch that has drawn criticism as one of the worst roads in the state. Other projects include 20 miles of repaving on U.S. Route 1 in Washington County and reconstruction of 3.4 miles of state Route 11 in Eagle Lake.
All of the work is to be done without borrowing, Bernhardt said, in line with the Republican governor’s policy to avoid new debt and pay down what the state now owes in bond obligations.
The projects also appear as efforts continue in the State House to scale back a key transportation revenue source, the fuel tax, now 29.5 cents per gallon of gasoline. The Legislature’s Transportation Committee has embraced by an 8-5 vote the Republican governor’s budget proposal to scrap indexing, or linking gasoline tax increases to rises in consumer prices, a move that would drain millions from the transportation budget.
The work plan presented Wednesday also counts on a transfer of more than $20 million from the state’s general fund to the transportation fund, a move that is far less than politically watertight, according to the lead Democrat on the Transportation Committee, Sen. Bill Diamond of Windham. As a former chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Diamond knows that there will be intense competition with social services and other state programs for scant general fund dollars in the budget.
“When it comes down to finding where that little bit of money is going to go, the last thing they’re going to say is the highway fund,” said Diamond.
While the plan “is probably as good as you’re going to get” as the state faces severe financial constraints, there were some disappointments, said Maria Fuentes, executive director of the Maine Better Transportation Association, which advocates in the State House for funding for transportation projects.
Fuentes credits the plan’s architects for including a strong program to preserve roads by recoating them, and for keeping on pace to fix bridges under a four-year program, but said the plan allows the state to continue to fall behind on needed highway reconstruction. Fuentes said she also was disappointed the transportation plan includes no borrowing.
Transportation projects at a glance
Route 11 in Aroostook County
Includes $8.1 million to reconstruct 3.4 miles of Route 11 in Eagle Lake and Wallagrass, and $150,000 to begin engineering and design for an additional 6.3 miles of Route 11 in T14 Rg Wels and Winterville Plantation.
Routes 173 and 220 intersection
Includes $1.2 million for improvements to the intersection of Routes 173 and 220 adjacent to a
dam at an outlet of Lake St. George. A couple of years ago a tractor-trailer went over the embankment at this intersection and almost destroyed the dam, which would have dramatically lowered lake levels, reducing property values and causing significant erosion downstream. This project will not only enhance safety but also provide extensive protection to the existing dam.
Stillwater Avenue in Old Town
Includes $2.8 million for several highway improvements on Stillwater Avenue. The project includes some reconstruction and safety improvements and complement local economic development efforts.
Route 1 in Washington County
Includes $4.6 million for pavement preservation for 20 miles.
Route 197 in Richmond
Includes $636,000 to rehabilitate 2.8 miles of highway, improve shoulders, drainage and correct deficient cross slopes.
Memorial Bridge in Kittery
Includes $34.4 million for Maine’s share to replace the Memorial Bridge, one of three bridges connecting Portsmouth, N.H., and Kittery, Maine.
Summary of highway and bridge improvements
• 34 bridge replacements
• 53 bridge rehabilitations or other improvements
• 63 miles of highway reconstruction
• 480 miles of pavement preservation and rehabilitation
• 1,200 miles of light capital paving