Vehicle traffic in the state of Maine is nearly half of what it was last year as Mainers and people across the country adhere to stay-at-home orders.1 This has signaled to some an opportunity to repair regularly trafficked roads without too much disruption. Traffic reduction, however, presents a unique opportunity to replace structurally deficient bridges across the state while simultaneously creating new jobs for some of the nearly 90,000 newly unemployed Mainers.2

Across the nation, 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the last 4 weeks, with 5.2 million of those claims occurring in the last week.3 In an April 9th interview, experts indicated that even though the economy may begin opening up over the coming weeks, recovery will take longer than expected.4 What is not discussed in this interview is the opportunity, in addition to the stimulus package, that state and federal government have in taking a more active role in economic recovery. More specifically, Maine has the opportunity to address the growing number of unemployed with the already existing need for infrastructure improvements around the state, while simultaneously providing a blueprint for other states to follow.

The American Road & Transportation Builder’s Association reported that of Maine’s 2,419 bridges, 15%, or 364, are structurally deficient and 18% are functionally obsolete. 5 Their report also contains a top ten list of frequently travelled, structurally deficient bridges. For perspective, eight of the ten bridges on that list were built before the New England Patriots became a football team in 1959. One of the oldest was built in 1931 spanning the Montsweag Brook on Wiscasset’s Rt. 1, shouldering an average daily burden of 16,461 vehicles. Bridges of that era, steel and concrete, have an advertised life expectancy of 50 years.6 The total cost for fixing these structurally deficient bridges is $912 million. 7 Fixing and repairing these bridges would simply pass the true cost of replacement down to future tax payers. Although spread out over a longer period of time, the ultimate expenditure would be far greater than if the bridges were simply replaced. As an initial step, Maine can rebid bridge projects that have been cancelled,8 and accelerate approval processes for new projects.

The composite materials industry in Maine is robust and diversified – from bridge components and shipbuilding, to wind turbine blades and more. With access to new and innovative technologies born out of the Advanced Structures and Composites Center and the University of Maine in Orono, the composites industry is poised to handle the large increases in business from state and municipally awarded contracts.

Composite bridge technology, although relatively new, has delivered cost competitive alternatives to traditional steel and concrete bridges across the U.S. and the world since 2008.9 Composite systems are projected to last over a century, more than twice as long as their steel and concrete counterparts. They are also rated at nearly triple the strength of steel and concrete. The advantages of composite technology are manifold, but it is the problem of allocating funds for new construction that poses the biggest obstacle to implementation on a large scale, even though the need has been demonstrated.

Through a combination of federal assistance and issuing state and municipal bonds, Maine can fund such projects without dramatically affecting its annual budget. The federal government, through the distribution of $2 trillion in stimulus money, has strongly indicated their willingness to fund a national recovery. Although the purpose of this initial package was to bolster companies and individuals in the short-term, Maine can capitalize on this intent by showing how its large-scale bridge construction program more effectively satisfies the goal of economic recovery by creating jobs. Although payments to individuals are needed to provide immediate relief, the only effective long-term relief for those negatively affected by the pandemic will be jobs.

When life returns to a new version of normal, Maine’s leadership in composite technology adoption and aggressive infrastructure improvement will be a shining example for other states. Maine has the chance to create opportunity in the midst of chaos, take affirmative steps toward addressing systemic infrastructure issues across the state, and counteract the daily increasing number of unemployed. While the COVID-19 crisis fosters fear,

Maine has the opportunity to be true to its motto, “Dirigo,” and show true leadership through bold action.

Alexander W. Read is a captain in the Marine Corps Reserve and a JD candidate at the University of Maine. He lives in Portland.

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