AUGUSTA, Maine — In 2002, Maine was ranked 12th in the U.S. in an annual study of the nation’s roads and bridges, but in the recently released updated study, based on 2007 data, Maine has dropped to 28th in the nation.
“It certainly will come as no surprise to the people of Maine that our numbers show the state’s primary road system — that is, the state-owned roads off the interstate — are the ones that are really weakening now,” said David Hartgen, author of the study released by the Reason Foundation. “Maine has a lot of roads and does not have the population match needed for those roads.”
Hartgen is a retired professor of transportation studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and has been the author of the annual study of how all the states compare in the management of their resources to assure adequate roads and bridges. He visits Maine frequently, most recently last summer, and lived in Orono for several years, where his late father, Vincent Hartgen, was a well-known art professor at the University of Maine.
“There is both good and bad in the report,” Hartgen said. “But it is clear that the state is not investing enough in its transportation infrastructure, and that has economic consequences for the state.”
For example, he said, the state ranks 10th best in the country for its administration of the Department of Transportation and is No. 1 in the nation for the quality of its rural interstate highways. But among rural highways, the study ranks Maine 43rd in the nation in the quality of its roads.
“Going from 12th in the nation to 28th in the nation is very concerning and disappointing,” said Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee. “However, it is not surprising. We are not doing enough for our transportation system here in Maine.”
Damon said he has received many letters from visitors to the state complaining about the poor condition of state roads, pointing to the stark difference between the interstate and the roads that “feed” the interstate. He said the state’s economy is hurt by the condition of the roads, and that includes the very important tourism sector.
“I ask you, ‘What are we trying to do, race to be the worst?’” he said.
Maria Fuentes, executive director of the Maine Better Transportation Association, agreed the report is no surprise. She said state efforts to maintain roads and bridges have lagged behind the identified needs for years. She said that 30 years ago, 26 percent of all revenue raised by the state went for roads and bridges. It is now less than 10 percent.
“When you look at that, this should come as a surprise to nobody,” she said. “We need to be doing more as a state.”
Maine Transportation Commissioner David Cole said the annual study by Hartgen is “the standard” by which states are measured. He is particularly pleased with Maine’s 10th-best ranking in the country for its efficient use of resources, but said the data used in the study lag current efforts.
“One of the things that dragged us down is the bridge deficiency number,” he said. “This does not take into account the governor’s bridge initiative.”
The study ranks Maine 42nd in the nation for its efforts to repair and maintain its bridges. Cole said the state has embarked on a four-year, $130 million bridge repair effort that lawmakers approved last year and that should help in the state’s ranking.
“When I look at the 28th position, certainly we would like to be doing better,” he said. “But we are still in the middle of the pack, and we are doing better than most Northeastern states.”
Cole agrees with Hartgen that the state does not have the resources, either from the state or federal government, to maintain the roads and bridges on the schedule they should be repaired or replaced.
“We have about twice the number of miles of road as New Hampshire, but we get about the same amount of money from the federal government,” he said.
Cole hopes Congress changes the federal aid system from one based on population to one that bases some of the aid formula on the amount of miles a state maintains. He said Congress would consider changes as part of the new five-year transportation authorization bill in the new year.
Damon said the report should be a wake-up call for lawmakers that Maine needs to spend more on its transportation infrastructure to help the state recover from the recession and grow its economy.
“We should be embarrassed,” he said. “We should be held to a higher standard.”
On the Web: http://reason.org/