January 2, 2013

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

A bucketloader approaches a submerged van on Somerset Street in Portland on Dec. 19, 2012, after a water main break caused flooding through much of the area.

Our View: Serious response needed for crumbling infrastructure

Portlanders got a nasty surprise one morning last month when a water main collapsed, flooding a busy intersection and damaging cars and buildings during the morning rush hour.

The incident left much of the city without water for several hours and led to a boil-water order for the entire Portland peninsula, including many of the city's restaurants.

This should not have been a surprise.

Like much of Maine's aging infrastructure, the old iron pipes buried beneath Portland's streets for a hundred years of freezing and thawing are a logical place to expect a failure. While Portland Water District officials say the pipe that broke was one of the biggest in a low-lying place in town, making the damage caused more severe, they can't promise that other pipes won't fail as well.

This is a problem seen throughout Maine. The Maine Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state a barely passing grade overall for its infrastructure, but low grades in some sections.

Roads received a D, dams a D-plus and municipal wastewater systems a D-plus. The group said the Legislature would have to invest much more than currently to keep up with the kinds of improvements the state needs to preserve its existing system.

This is serious because Maine's economy is built on its infrastructure. Failures like the broken main in Portland create significant disruption to business and individuals. Owners of flooded cars who did not have collision insurance will take a loss.

As bad as it was, however, it could have been much worse. A catastrophic bridge failure, for instance, could have taken people's lives. Some of Maine's bridges are no more sound than the Portland Water District's lines.

Neglect of infrastructure needs is a bipartisan failure that goes back many years. But Gov. LePage's stubbornness about issuing bonds does not ensure the action that is needed.

Lawmakers are deep in what has become an annual budget crisis, but deferring maintenance on these key infrastructure projects should not be seen as a prudent response. This state is not rich enough to live with a crumbling infrastructure.

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