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State’s rural roads, bridges in rough shape, report finds, but where is the money?

Kevin Bennett | BDN
Kevin Bennett | BDN
A hot-topping crew puts the final coat on a stretch of Mt. Hope Avenue in Bangor on Thursday, September 1, 2011.
By Eric Russell, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s rural roads and bridges are in rough shape compared to those in other parts of the country, according to a national transportation group, and the problem is compounded by lack of sufficient state and federal funds to keep up repairs.

Washington, D.C.-based TRIP, a nonprofit agency that conducts research on a host of transportation issues, released a report Thursday that examines roads and bridges throughout rural America.

Maine was ranked 14th from the bottom for rural road conditions and 12th from the bottom for bridge conditions. According to TRIP, 19 percent of the state’s rural roads were deemed deficient and 15 percent of all bridges fit that category.

An additional 36 percent of Maine’s major rural roads were rated mediocre or fair and an additional 15 percent of the state’s rural bridges were functionally obsolete.

“This report quantifies what most Mainers already know: that the condition of our rural roads make it harder to do business, not easier,” said John O’Dea, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Maine. “A $230 million dollar reduction in capital expenditures by MaineDOT during this budget cycle will only quicken the pace of deterioration.

“Doing more with less is a popular refrain from politicians, but it doesn’t fix our roads. In fact, celebrating a capital plan characterized as ‘doing more with less’ is akin to making malnutrition a virtue.”

Other New England states such as Vermont and New Hampshire also ranked poorly as well in a report that was researched before Tropical Storm Irene made the region’s roads even worse.

The national group defines rural America as places outside the primary daily commuting zones of cities of 50,000 or more, or virtually all of Maine. The report provided only broad data and rankings but did not specify which roads or bridges were deficient on a state-by-state basis.

In addition to ranking states on roads and bridges, the TRIP report studied fatality rates and found that, despite a recent decrease, fatalities on Maine’s rural roads remain disproportionately high.

Of the 159 traffic-related fatalities that occurred in Maine in 2009, 137 were on rural, noninterstate roads. The report cited inadequate roadway safety design, longer emergency vehicle response times and the higher speeds traveled on rural roads as factors in the higher traffic fatality rate.

TRIP offered a host of suggestions for how states like Maine can improve safety of roads and bridges, but the bottom line is: those improvements cost money.

In addition to budget cuts at the state level, Republican leaders in Augusta, including Gov. Paul LePage, refused to consider any bond proposals during the recent Legislature. Borrowing money has long been a means to pay for road and bridge repairs and, historically, transportation bonds have been approved by voters.

“With long-term federal transportation legislation stuck in political gridlock in Washington, America’s rural communities and economies could face even higher unemployment and decline,” Will Wilkins, executive director of TRIP, said in a statement. “Funding the modernization of our rural transportation system will create jobs and help ensure long-term economic development and quality of life in rural America.”

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