Ellsworth growth means more road responsibility

Posted May 19, 2011, at 8:29 p.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — The city has welcomed a major growth spurt over the past 10 years, but that increase in population will mean new city responsibilities for state roads and increased costs.

The city’s population increased by 1,285 residents, raising the population in 2010 to 7,741, about a  20 percent jump, based on the 2010 census figures released recently by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Under state law, once a municipality’s population exceeds 7,500 it is considered an urban compact area. The Maine Department of Transportation, working with the city, determines the boundaries of the urban compact area and reassigns maintenance responsibilities on state roads within those boundaries to the municipality.

“That’s not a bad thing,” City Manager Michelle Beal said Thursday. “But there is a cost.”

The law has been on the books for decades, according to Peter Coughlan, director of MDOT’s community service division. He said it provides benefits to both the state and the affected towns. The city will have full responsibility for maintenance of state roads within the urban compact area and also will have control of those roads.

“They end up getting a lot more state assistance in terms of state funding and they pick up the responsibility and control of all driveway entrances and road cuts; that can affect development,” Coughlan said Thursday.

He said the city will receive about $8,000 per mile more in state subsidies for the roads it picks up as an urban compact area.

But Beal indicated that the state aid for roads rarely matches the full cost of caring for them. At this point, she said, it is not clear how much additional cost the city will incur once the transfer is completed.

But Coughlan stressed that state subsidy for roads was never meant to cover all the maintenance expenses.

“The city will get a substantial amount of money to pick up these miles of road,” he said.

Referring to city benefits of acquiring responsibility for more roads, Coughlan said, “If anyone wants to dig into the state road up on High Street for any reason, that’s now in the control of the city.”

Another benefit comes in terms of customer service and operating efficiencies, he said.

“They take control of certain things and are able to better coordinate road maintenance, especially snow plowing in the winter,” he said. “They’re more fully in control.”

According to the DOT website, the city’s new responsibilities will include not only snow plowing and ice control, but pothole repairs, pavement marking including center lines and crosswalks, surface treatments, and traffic signal and sidewalk maintenance, among others.

The state obviously will see some savings from the reduced miles of plowing, and from reduced maintenance on the roads including painting. There also will be some savings in terms of administrative costs in dealing with road entrance permitting, Coughlan said.

There already are 43 municipalities that have state urban compact areas in Maine.

After the 2000 census, Coughlan said, no new municipalities reached the 7,500 resident milestone. Based on the 2010 census, he said, three other towns besides Ellsworth will become compact urban areas. Coughlan declined to discuss the other communities until they have been formally notified of their new status.

Like many other communities in Maine, Ellsworth already provides winter maintenance — snow plowing and sanding — on some state roads. But, according to Beal, as an urban compact area, the area the city is responsible for will expand and the city also will be responsible for summer maintenance on those roads.

“That means we’ll have more urban area and we’ll have more roads that we’re responsible for,” she said.

The city can expect to have additional responsibilities on areas of routes 1, 1A, 3, 172 as well as on Water and State streets. The city and the transportation department are still working on the specific boundaries.

Urban compact areas generally are designated by both the density of population and of structures, but Beal said those boundaries are not always the most practical, especially in terms of snow plowing.

“We have a good working relationship with the DOT,” she said. “We’ll look at where it makes sense to stop.”

Beal acknowledged that there are benefits to Ellsworth. By having the city oversee all of the area, Beal said, it will simplify the road cut approval process for both residential and commercial developers seeking to add driveways or business entrances within the area.

Although, under the law, the city and the DOT have one year in which to work out the details of the new zone, Beal said the city needs to know whether it will be responsible for additional plowing next winter. That would have an impact on the municipal budget which city councilors are in the process of preparing.

The city’s road crews already are “stretched thin,”  she said. “We really need to know if we’re going to have more winter plowing responsibility; that’s what we’re going to look at first. If we’re going to have added miles, we need to look at our routes and at manpower and figure out how we’re going to handle that.”

Coughlan said he is sensitive to the city’s budget timing — as well as to the state’s — and will be very flexible as they work out details of the transition. One thing that will have to happen, he said, will be a review of the condition of the roads to be transferred to the city and a determination of what work needs to be done to them. The law requires that they be in reasonably good shape when they are turned over to the city.

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