What’s the next best thing to actually fixing Maine’s crumbling roads?
Complaining about them.
“Do you remember Tip O’Neill’s famous quote that ‘all politics is local?’ It’s the exact same thing with transportation,” said Maria Fuentes, executive director of the Maine Better Transportation Association, in an interview Tuesday.
“People think the road they use to take their kids to school is the worst road,” Fuentes explained. “But (bad roads) are all over the place.”
Maybe it’s because we’re all cranky after a particularly long, cruel winter.
Or maybe the conservative crusade against any and all government spending is finally taking its predicted toll on our highways, byways, bridges and, last but not least, auto repair bills.
Or maybe we’re not filling up as much as we once did, which in turn means less gas-tax revenue for the sputtering Maine Highway Fund.
For whatever the reason, Maine Better Transportation’s “Worst Road in Maine” contest is back after a three-year hiatus – and not a moment too soon.
When we last visited the statewide competition, in 2011, Route 141 in Swanville won top (or bottom) honors on the testimony of Carol Kelley of Waldo.
Kelley drove her Ford van over the white-knuckle route to get her handicapped son to high school each day – until the pain from being bounced around in his wheelchair got so bad that he actually had to switch high schools.
Fuentes said the contest ran out of gas the past few years, primarily because too many people wanted her to come out and take a picture of their stretch of hell on earth. (“I can’t,” she said. Why not? “It’s too dangerous to stop.”)
This year is different.
Even before the association relaunched the contest, fully documented entries began trickling in from every corner of semi-thawed Maine.
And with the contest now officially up and running until May 15, the number of contestants already has passed 200. That’s miles ahead of the 120 entries received in 2011.
The spooling photos on Maine Better Transportation’s website chronicle the latest carnage, from “Bump – Next 12 Miles” and “Death Valley” in midcoast Maine to “Collapsed Bridge in York County.”
There’s even a video called “Culvert Failure, Freeport.” (Trust me, the middle-of-the-road title doesn’t do the 3½-minute clip justice.)
So what’s going on here? Are we Mainers just in a griping mood or is our transportation infrastructure truly crumbling before our smartphone cameras?
The short answer is both.
“It absolutely is a funding issue,” said John Melrose, who was Maine’s transportation commissioner under Gov. Angus King and now is a senior consultant with the Eaton Peabody Consulting Group.
Two months ago, Melrose completed a report for Maine Better Transportation that examines Maine’s transportation needs, and how better to pay for them.
While he found that Maine’s interstate highways are actually in decent shape compared with rest of the nation, it’s all downhill from there.
To wit: Ninety-one percent of Maine’s “rural major collector” roads suffer from fair to poor pavement, compared with 67 percent nationally. The same goes for fair-to-poor “rural minor arterials” (66 percent in Maine versus 48 percent nationally) and “rural principal arterials” (46 percent in Maine versus 32 percent nationally).
Our bridges aren’t faring much better, outpacing the national decline in each of four categories that range from “structurally deficient” to “functionally obsolete.” Maine’s bridges are also older, averaging 49 years compared with the national average of 41 years.
Then there are the evaporating funding streams: Flat federal highway funding; the decision by Gov. Paul LePage and the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011 to scrap Maine’s biennial inflationary adjustment to the state’s gas tax; a faster-than-expected decline in gas consumption that inevitably puts the squeeze on state highway revenues.
That last one is huge. As Mainers migrate toward hybrids and other high-mileage vehicles, we now burn 17 percent less gasoline than we did in 2003. Our miles traveled, on the other hand, have dropped only about 5 percent.
Put another way, the owner of a Dodge Ram pickup truck who drives 20,000 miles a year pays about $400 in gasoline taxes. A Toyota Prius owner who drives the same distance pays around a quarter of that.
It all adds up to what Melrose calls a “perfect storm” for Maine roads – only made worse by one of the nastiest winters in recent memory.
Amen to that, says Maine Department of Transportation spokesman Ted Talbot.
“The potholes have been an amazing challenge this year,” said Talbot. “We go out and patch it, then it rains and we go right back to where we were.”
Or worse: When it comes to maintaining Maine’s 8,818 miles of state-owned roads and highways, noted Talbot, “We’re close to $110 million short of where we need to be each year.”
(Take a look at the bright side – without the state’s recent sale of $100 million in transportation bonds, according to Melrose, that $110 million annual shortfall would balloon to $150 million.)
But enough about how fiscal conservatism and the surge in high-mileage hybrids – strange bedfellows, right? – are conspiring to devour Main Street.
Back to the contest.
Fuentes promises that everyone who enters – you can do so at fixmaineroads.org – will receive an official “2014 Worst Road in Maine” bumper sticker. (Assuming you still have a bumper.)
And the winner, chosen in consultation with an advisory panel of engineers, will get a check for $296 – the amount the average Maine driver spends annually on repairs made necessary by rough roads. (Back in 2011, it was a mere $250.)
Fuentes stressed that photos of your transportation travesty are mandatory. In addition, Maine Better Transportation will consider other visuals – flat tires, broken struts, that kind of thing.
You can even get creative, like the contestant back in 2010 who plunked an Oakhurst milk container into an asphalt crater just to show how deep it was. “So far this year,” reports Fuentes, “one person has planted a flower in the pothole.”
Hope springs eternal.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]