AUGUSTA, Maine — If voters approve the Question 4 bond request on the Nov. 6 ballot, the state’s planned road and bridge work will benefit from an injection of money, resulting in more work being completed, according to Department of Transportation spokesman Ted Talbot.

Most of the $51.5 million that would be borrowed if the referendum passes — $41 million — will be applied to the Department of Transportation’s list of projects. That money would become available for work in 2014, Talbot said.

A smaller amount of money in the bond will be used to improve ports at Searsport and Eastport.

Improvements at Searsport in particular, transportation advocates say, have the potential to boost economic activity in central, northern and eastern Maine.

Transportation planners have been asserting in recent years that Searsport’s Mack Point port facility, which has been improved with state bond and private money, should be understood as the port for Bangor and Millinocket, not only for the coastal area.

Though Talbot stressed that DOT does not take a position for or against passage of the bond request, 100 percent of the bond money will be applied to capital projects, he said. In DOT’s operating budget, by comparison, 60 percent of funds are used for construction and improvement work.

In addition, Talbot noted, the slow economy has resulted in a bid climate favorable to the state. Bids for road and bridge work often come in more than 10 percent below DOT estimates, he said.

Even so, DOT’s budget does not allocate enough money for the state’s list of needed and approved road and bridge work, falling about $150 million short in the current two-year plan, Talbot said. With fuel tax revenue diminished as people drive fewer miles and use more fuel-efficient vehicles and a general frugality in state budgeting, most states are falling behind in maintaining their aging road and bridge infrastructure.

As is typically the case, the $41 million that would be borrowed by the state if the bond passes would be used as a match to bring in up to $72 million in federal transportation funds.

Safer, more productive ports

Though the funds in the bond proposal for port work are a fraction of that dedicated to roads and bridges, improvements to maritime infrastructure would support existing industry and potentially create more, advocates say.

The bond request would provide $3 million for dredging the channel just off Mack Point, which would make the state eligible for $10 million in federal funds.

Rep. James Gillway, R-Searsport, a member of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee who is also Searsport’s town manager, said the Legislature three years ago funded the dredging, but in final budget deliberations the money was cut.

“I lobbied pretty hard” to restore the funding, he said, because in his view, Searsport’s Mack Point two-dock port facility is critical for the northern two-thirds of the state.

“We are the port of Bangor, we are the port of Millinocket, we are the port of Presque Isle,” Gillway said.

David Gelinas, president of the Penobscot Bay & River Pilots Association, said when the federal channel just off Mack Point was dredged in the early 1960s, a depth of 35 feet at mean low tide was established. Since then, there has been no maintenance dredging to keep it at that depth.

“The edges have kind of sloughed in,” he said, making the channel more narrow. In some places, the channel is just 32 feet deep, which means ships must wait for the tides in order to safely move to the docks.

The plan is to widen the turning basin for ships and bring the depth to 40 feet at mean low water. The docks themselves have 40-foot water at low tides. A 2004 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study supported the need for dredging the federal channel, Gelinas said.

The lack of depth has economic ramifications, he said. Ships of 600 feet to 740 feet have unloaded or loaded at Mack Point, but because of the channel, they often load “short,” meaning they do not carry their full capacity. That makes shipping to or from Maine unattractive, he said.

In January 2010, the 800-foot-long Bahamian ship Baldock, with a cargo of 75,000 tons of gypsum from Spain, arrived at Mack Point, drawing 38 feet of water. Gelinas said safety regulations used to require 2 feet of depth under the ship’s keel, but in recent years, shipping companies, insurers and underwriters are requiring water equal to 10 percent of the ship’s draft or 1 meter below the keel.

“It means a greater degree of safety,” he said.

The port work at Searsport is not related to the town’s current review of a proposal to build a 23 million gallon liquefied natural gas tank in the Mack Point facility, Gelinas said.

The bond would provide another $2 million to be matched by private sources to install material handling equipment, which would enable the port to load wood chips produced at Cate Street Capital’s Millinocket mill onto ships bound for Europe. The mill recently received state approval to build the $48 million facility which will create 25 full-time jobs.

Other components of the bond funding include: $1.5 million for warehouse facilities at the port of Eastport; $1.5 million for industrial rail work; $1 million for transit buses; and $300,000 for weather observation stations to assist LifeFlight Foundation.