March 12, 2010

Obama road plan could bring jobs, money to MaineCONTINUED FROM THE FRONT PAGE

TUX TURKEL

— By

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Doug Jones/staff photographer: Wednesday, December, 10, 2008: South Portland's, Broadway St. is on the list for federally sponsored improvements.

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Doug Jones/staff photographer: Wednesday, December, 10, 2008: I-295 northbound in Falmouth and South Portland's Broadway St. are on the list for federally sponsored improvements.

Staff Writer

President-elect Barack Obama's proposal for a massive federal highway and bridge repair program to stimulate the economy next year could bring millions of dollars in construction spending and thousands of jobs to Maine.

The work in Maine could be guided by a draft list of 45 high-priority projects that officials say could be started quickly and get people working. The list -- and similar ones generated in every other state -- came in response to survey requests from an advocacy group for state transportation agencies.

It's too soon to know how any federal highway program might shake out, as it competes with other proposals aimed at creating jobs and pulling the country out of a deep recession. But transportation officials say there's plenty of work to be done in the short term -- despite some concern expressed nationally that road projects are slow to get under way and, as a result, not the best basis for a stimulus package.

''It's work that needs to get done,'' said David Cole, commissioner of the Maine Department of Transportation. ''There are people who want to do the work, and it's coming at a time when the economy needs it.''

The list represents so-called ''shovel-ready'' candidates -- projects with sufficient planning and engineering completed that they could be put out to bid within three to six months of enactment of a federal stimulus package. In that way, they would give a relatively quick boost to job-creation efforts.

Projects that could be done within that time frame, according to MDOT, include:

nThe northbound lanes of Interstate 295 between Brunswick and West Gardiner could be resurfaced.

nStretches of secondary highways in Falmouth, Saco, Wells and Kennebunk could be rebuilt.

nRoads, including Broadway in South Portland, could get new pavement.

More than 7,000 construction jobs could be created in Maine next year if Congress and Obama approve funding, the department estimates. The total cost for these improvements is estimated at $221 million.

Many of the projects have been deferred for years for lack of money, and many come from a growing backlog of paving jobs needed to keep existing roads from falling apart, Cole said.

It's also possible, according to MDOT, that the list could expand to include public transit projects. That could free up money for bus and rail improvements, such as helping to extend Amtrak's passenger train from Portland to Brunswick.

The list was compiled this month for a national survey by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. The nonprofit advocacy group identified 5,000 ''ready-to-go'' projects, worth $64 billion nationwide, that could be placed under contract within 180 days. It estimated that these projects could support 1.8 million jobs.

The survey's status was elevated last weekend, when Obama said he wanted to create the largest public works project since the building of the federal interstate system in the 1950s.

Obama's plan has the support of Maine's two U.S. senators.

Earlier this year, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, introduced an economic recovery bill that, among other things, would provide $50 billion in transportation bonds to finance roads, bridges, transit, rail and waterways. The work would serve as a catalyst for thousands of jobs and improve the nation's aging transportation infrastructure, Collins said.

On Tuesday, she wrote a letter to Obama repeating her call for infastructure investment as part of a larger economic stimulus package that would include energy improvements, such as weatherization programs, and business cluster development.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said she was encouraged by Obama's infastructure plan, both as economic stimulus and as an investment in America's crumbling infrastructure.

''With 41 states experiencing budget shortfalls and unable to make the kind of commitment they traditionally make to infrastructure projects,'' Snowe said, ''the federal government must take steps to restore America's world-class infrastructure.''

In Maine, the projects being considered range from Kittery to Caribou. They include $66 million of highway reconstruction, $24.5 million of paving on secondary roads and $22 million of bridge work, roughly half of that going to paint the recently rebuilt Augusta Memorial Bridge.

The largest chunk of money, roughly $115 million, would catch up on critical paving along the interstate, the backbone of the state's transportation system.

For instance, the state last summer oversaw paving of the crumbling concrete section of I-295 southbound from West Gardiner to Brunswick. If federal money becomes available, the 22 miles on the northbound side could be done, at an estimated cost of $35 million to $40 million.

''That's the kind of project we can get done in one season and get money out into the economy,'' Cole said. ''And we need to do it to maintain the interstate system.''

Based on current costs, MDOT and federal officials estimate that 35 construction jobs are created for every $1 million of spending. If Maine were to receive the $221 million it has earmarked for its 45 candidate projects, that would translate into more than 7,000 jobs.

Some critics have said that this type of public works spending takes too long to filter through the economy. However, Maria Fuentes, executive director of the Maine Better Transportation Association, said there are plenty of companies and contractors ready now to start these projects.

''I don't have any concerns about getting that work out within 180 days,'' said Fuentes, whose group represents engineers, public works directors and other road-building interests.

Soaring prices earlier this year for asphalt and building materials, coupled with tight state budgets, cut further into the work opportunities for businesses that design and build roads and bridges. Many have been forced to lay off workers.

The prospect of a large federal infastructure program gives them hope that their fortunes might change.

''We've been in a survival mode for the past four years, and the past two have been extremely slow,'' said Eldon Morrison, president of CPM Constructors in Freeport.

Morrison, a past president of the Associated General Contractors of Maine, said he'd be interested in bidding on some of the road reconstruction jobs and a bridge deck replacement in Lincoln.

CPM Constructors had 180 workers last summer; now it's down to 94. A laborer can earn $12 an hour, he said, and a crane operator can earn $24.

''We could double the size of our company,'' he said. ''We could expand very quickly and put a lot of people to work.''

Companies that help design transportation projects also are watching closely to see whether they can team up with contractors to speed up new work.

Stephen Sawyer, vice president of transportation at Sebago Technics in Westbrook, said his firm hasn't designed a new road project in years, relying mostly on commercial real estate work during the building boom. Now that's drying up, so public-sector roadwork looks promising.

''The design community is hopeful there will be opportunity for us,'' Sawyer said.

No one will know for sure what opportunities exist until a spending package emerges and transportation officials see what criteria are attached to the funding, Cole said.

The state might have included other bridge projects in its draft list, but bridge work can involve uncertain expenses, such as detours and temporary spans. The department's draft list is likely to evolve, Cole said, when the amount of funding and rules surrounding it become clearer.

''It's all speculation at this point,'' he said.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

tturkel@pressherald.com

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