WALDO, Maine — Michael Kelley didn’t mince words when his mom drove the family’s Ford van over potholes and other rough patches in the roads near their Route 137 home.
He would shout in pain, Carol Kelley said, adding that the constant jostling at times damaged his wheelchair and the van’s special wheelchair lift.
It was “real bad,” Michael, 21, said Friday afternoon at his house.
He suffers from severe scoliosis and has a titanium rod in his spine. He’s fragile, his mother said, and it didn’t help to drive over Routes 131, 137 and 141 before two of the three were repaved.
“The majority of Waldo County roads are worse than other areas I’ve seen,” Carol Kelley said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve had to get my car aligned.”
So when she saw that the Maine Better Transportation Association was holding its 2nd annual Worst Road in Maine contest, she didn’t hesitate.
This week, she was announced as the winner of the statewide competition, which received more than 120 entries, twice as many as it had the year before. The stretch of Route 141 that runs through Swanville has been denounced as the state’s worst road.
“Transportation, like politics, is pretty local,” said Maria Fuentes, the executive director of the transportation infrastructure lobbying group. “What we’re trying to do is raise public awareness about the shape of our roads.”
She said that in order to be considered, the entries had to include a visual component. The results don’t provide any scientific evidence, but officials from the transportation lobby felt that they were powerful persuaders nonetheless.
Ted Talbot, a spokesperson for the Maine Department of Transportation, said Friday that the contest actually can be very helpful.
“The ‘Worst Road in Maine,’ is a good little tool,” he said. “It’s easy to cringe over something like that. But it’s helpful.”
When officials from the Maine Better Transportation Association heard Carol Kelley’s story, they knew they had their winner.
“We just thought that Carol’s [entry] was so compelling. She does everything from the perspective of her son,” Fuentes said. “She showed us where a couple of these roads were. She told us what she had done to her van to make it a more comfortable ride. Her gauge, her measure, is that Michael would cry out when going over a particularly rough stretch of road.”
At one point it was so bad she had Michael transferred to Belfast Area High School, which is miles closer to their house than Mount View High School in Thorndike, which students from Waldo normally attend. He graduated from Belfast in the spring.
In addition to the attention drawn to her local roads, Carol Kelley received a $250 check for car repair, which the transportation association says is the amount of money the average Mainer pays each year in vehicle maintenance costs due to bad roads.
Kelley said that her repairs have been more expensive, at least $1,100 to fix broken springs and her continual alignment troubles. The family purchased the specially equipped van years ago for $25,000 and have managed to pay it off.
“God help us if something happened to that now,” she said from her son’s NASCAR-decorated bedroom.
When Kelley entered the competition last spring, it was before the Maine Department of Transportation repaved stretches of Routes 131 and 137. Talbot said that Route 141 is scheduled to be repaved from Swanville to Monroe sometime next summer.
The approach to the Kelley’s house is now smooth and clear; the ride in the conversion van has become much more comfortable.
Michael said that this has been good.
“[It] doesn’t hurt,” he said.
But Fuentes said that the “skinny-mix” that was used on the roads is a thin coating that will last only a few years and is not a substitute for really fixing Maine’s bad roads.
“I credit the [Maine Department of Transportation],” she said. “They know where the bad roads are.”
However, Maine has lots of roads, and relatively few people who live here. In the 1970s, the state spent about 26 percent of all revenues on transportation, but that number has dropped to about 10 percent, she said.
“Especially when times are tough, it’s hard to divide the pie. But it’s certainly clear that 30 years ago there was more of a focus on making sure we have a good transportation system,” Fuentes said. “I feel like we’re giving the department an impossible job. We give them much less money in real dollars than we used to. And we expect them to fix all of these roads.”
Though public awareness stunts like the contest are helpful and informative, Talbot said, his department has to prioritize its projects now more than ever.
“It’s no longer the loudest voice wins,” he said. “It’s really a lot of times a matter of safety first.”