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MaineDOT plans $247 million in projects for coming year

2008 work plan includes few bridges and a big late addition

By Kathryn Buxton

MaineDOT engineers and planners are putting the finishing touches on the department’s 2008 Capital Work Plan. The $247 million plan includes 11 bridge replacements and a major $32 million rehabilitation of I-295 southbound from Gardiner to Topsham. That project was a late entry to the work plan after issues with other projects caused them to slip to later years, providing a cash flow opportunity. An example was a bridge replacement in Naples that was postponed for one year due to cost increases and public concerns over bridge types.

“We’re trying to get as much work out as possible,” said MaineDOT Commissioner David Cole during a special presentation on the advertisement schedule for the capital work plan to the MBTA board of directors in February. He said that the plan may be revised to reflect the recently released federal 2008 budget, which includes funding at
SAFETEA-LU levels and some additional funding for bridges mandated by Congress after the collapse of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis last August.

The plan calls for only 11 bridges to be replaced in 2008. That is far short of the 30 to 40 annual bridge replacements called for in Governor Baldacci’s bridge report, “Keeping Our Bridges Safe” released in late November 2007. Routine maintenance, from deck or culvert replacement to painting, is planned for 24 other bridges.

During the presentation, Cole pointed out that Maine will hit a major milestone in 2008. This year 50 percent of the state’s bridges will be 50 years old or older. He cautioned that MaineDOT will not be able make headway in its plans to replenish the state’s bridge stock unless new funding becomes available. Cole noted that the bridge report “calls for an extra $50-60 million a year for the next 20 years,” to fix Maine’s crumbling bridges.

Tough choices

Cole and Bruce Van Note, MaineDOT’s deputy commissioner for operations and budget, talked in detail about the 2008-09 work plan that includes about $136 million in paving, a 27 percent increase from the previous biennium. “This reflects prioritization given available funding,” Van Note said. “We need a substantial paving program to maintain our investment in built roads and try to keep unbuilt roads passable.” 

The department’s quandary – how to make do with the limited funding available to them – is being watched closely by industry leaders who are planning for the upcoming season.

 “It looks like we’re going to see paving work levels similar to what we saw last year. But as for road construction or reconstruction, there’s quite a decline,” said Rodney Lane of The Lane Construction Corporation based in Hermon. Only 25 major highway reconstruction projects are included on the 2008 schedule. While MaineDOT plans to tackle some long-overdue projects such as Route 2 from Bethel to Gilead and the 22-mile southbound stretch of I-295 in Gardiner, those projects are only a drop in the bucket of Maine’s backlog of deficient highways.

Scheduled major highway reconstruction projects total only $105 million for the biennium, which is 28 percent less than last biennium, and 48 percent less than three bienniums ago.

“It’s true, our dirt work has dropped significantly,” Van Note said. “But in these times we are forced into very tough choices.” 

There is also a troubling lack of planning for future projects. The work plan has little budgeted for engineering of future highway and bridge reconstruction in the pipeline.

Cole said that department officials are frustrated that despite education of voters about the looming infrastructure crisis – including the bridge report that he described as “unvarnished” – the public seems to have a false perception that current funding levels are sufficient to ensure their bridges and highways are safe long-term.

“We hate being in this position that we’re headed backwards,” said Cole who said that MaineDOT’s long-term plan identifies an additional $250 million a year over the next 10 years to get its program moving forward again.

Tough winter, tough competition

Tim Folster of Sargent Corporation of Stillwater said that it’s not just the type of contracts (paving vs. reconstruction), but also the size of the contracts at issue. He said that many of the contracts put out to bid so far have been small ones. “Numbers-wise they are small jobs – most of them are under under $1 million and that doesn’t go very far,” he said.

He said the state’s lack of investment in its infrastructure is really beginning to show. This winter’s heavy snows and frequent thaws have wreaked havoc with highways, and that has not gone unnoticed by drivers who have complained mightily. Folster said Maine’s pothole population will continue to grow as long as the state allows its highway reconstruction program to fall further behind.

“The old highways don’t have the structure or the drainage,” said Folster. This time of year with high snowfall and repeated thawing and freezing, it’s as if “the road is floating,” he said.

The lack of significant investment in state highways is trickling down to the municipal level, as well. That has meant competition for locally administered jobs has grown fiercer.

“We bid on a project in Wells where there were 10 bidders on the one project,” said Phil Grondin, Jr., of R. J. Grondin & Sons in Gorham, adding that there was only a $19 spread between the top two bidders. He said that he expects that “things are going to be getting pretty competitive” and that Grondin’s estimators have been “sharpening their pencils to make sure that we get the work we need to keep our crews busy.”

Changing ways

For its part, MaineDOT’s Van Note said that department planners are changing how it programs projects for its work plans to help protect the buying power of its limited budget. In past years, if a project like the Naples bridge was delayed, the money allocated for the project would be put aside. Now, MaineDOT transfers those funds to other projects, and reserves funding for the delayed project in the next capital plan.

“We’ve shifted from a piggy-bank model to a cash-flow model,” said Van Note. “Of course, the downside is that this means there will be less capacity to program new work next time, but we’ve got to get the money out there to move the economy and make the system safer.”

The I-295 rehabilitation, estimated at about $31 million, includes rubblizing the old concrete surface and replacing it with an asphalt surface. MaineDOT hopes to close down both southbound lanes of traffic and detour traffic around the work site throughout this summer. MaineDOT is discussing the “get-in-get-out” plan with communities within the project corridor and hopes to have the project advertised in April.

Bigger needs

In Hermon, Rodney Lane is concerned about the effect that the recent public focus on bridges will have. He said that the current project list appears to have shifted more of MaineDOT’s scarce resources to bridges and, as a result, is creating an even bigger backlog of needed highway reconstruction.

“The reality is, none of the programs have enough funding,” said Lane. “Not bridges or paving or highway reconstruction.” He said that by just shifting too-scarce resources from one program to the next, Maine is falling further behind and putting its transportation infrastructure at risk.

He sees investment in public works as a way to jumpstart a flagging state economy. “We need nearly double the program we have [to address the backlog of bridges and highways] – and just think what that would pump into the economy,” said Lane. “We’d be creating jobs and investing in something our children will benefit from.”
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