The 'watching place'
Paving roads and planning for change in Skowhegan
It’s an unseasonably warm fall day, and the Skowhegan Highway Department is making good use of the favorable weather. Inside the department’s headquarters at the end of Greenwood Avenue, mechanics are going over the department’s fleet, getting it ready for winter. Outside two two-man crews work their way up and down the grid of town streets picking up leaves. The phone rings, and it is a resident wanting to know when a crew will be by to pick up leaves on her street.
Without consulting a schedule or a map, Skowhegan Highway Commissioner Greg Dore asks what street she lives on, pauses for a second to make a mental calculation, and lets her know that a crew will be by the following Tuesday. Then he turns back to the discussion at hand – how will Skowhegan and Maine be able to continue to afford to maintain and improve roads and bridges if funding from the federal and state gas taxes remain stagnant? That is a question, at least on the local level, he admits to not having a straight answer for.
“The people don’t care how you pay for it, they just want for their roads to be fixed. So when we have a road that needs work, I look at it and say ‘How am I going to get it done?’” said Dore. Getting it done these days, according to Dore, can mean piecing together funding for a local work plan from a variety of sources, including local funding and various grant programs administered by MaineDOT.
Case in point are two major town road reconstruction projects: Dr. Mann Road and Malbon Mills Road. The city is putting up half the funding – approximately $150,000 – and getting the other half through MaineDOT’s Municipal Partnership Initiative (MPI), a matching grant program developed by MaineDOT two years ago.
Dore notes the program is similar to a funding program for minor collectors proposed several years ago in the MaineDOT Highway Simplification Study. Dore, a former president of the MBTA, was part of the working group that provided input for the study, and he is pleased the issues raised and ideas generated as part of the study may have contributed to MaineDOT developing the MPI. And he is gratified that his town has been able to benefit from the program, as well. Work is slated to begin on the two projects next summer.
Dore, an engineer by training, has headed the department for the past 21 years. He is one of the few remaining elected highway commissioners in Maine (he was re-elected for his sixth term in November 2012) and admits it can be a challenge to keep politics out of daily department business. He said the biggest difficulty the department faces is budgetary. Since he was first elected, he has watched the cost of road maintenance skyrocket.
“A dump truck used to cost $50,000, now it’s $200,000 and materials costs have quadrupled,” said Dore. “Hot top used be $19 a ton, now it’s $82.”
Dore presides over a department staff of eight and an annual operating budget of $1.25 million budget with an additional $300,000-$400,000 for paving. He said he could easily spend twice that to maintain the city’s 94 lane miles of roads. The town is able to stretch maintenance dollars because it gets help from MaineDOT for plowing. Skowhegan performs winter maintenance on 20 miles of state highways that run through town in exchange for about $140,000 in state funding.
“We supply the labor and machinery and MaineDOT provides the funding,” said Dore.
Between one-third and almost half of his annual budget is taken up with paving – the city on average spends between $400,000 and $500,000 every year to pave its roads. Dore said that is not nearly enough, and every year the town has to make choices about what it can and cannot afford to do. That, in the end, he said costs the town more in the long run.
“Work we put off this year, will just cost more next year,” said Dore. “We have some roads we haven’t touched in 20 years and that is just too long.”
Occasionally the city will issue a bond to undertake additional roadwork, but the town never really catches up. “Oh, we go in cycles and every once in a while we’ll decide to borrow a couple million and get some roads fixed, but it’s not enough,” said Dore.
He predicts it will be a while before the town bonds more roadwork, because it is currently completing a major $11 million storm water/sewer separation project that was funded through a municipal bond issue.
An eye to history
Skowhegan seems much bigger than its 2010 U.S. Census count (pop. 8,589) and that, in large part, is due to its unique geography. The town was founded in 1773 as part of Canaan at a bend in the Kennebec River, a place the local tribe of Abenaki called “Skowhegan” or “the watching place” because its banks were a prime spot for watching and catching fish.
During the early 20th century, Skowhegan became a manufacturing hub, home to a hydro-powered paper mill, sawmill, woolen mill, two flour mills, a wood pulp mill, three wood planing mills, as well as other industries. Today, the town continues to be a regional service center and manufacturing hub and is home to athletic shoemaker New Balance, Sappi Fine Paper and Redington Fairview Hospital.
It also has been a political powerhouse, giving rise to one Maine governor, five U.S. Congressmen and one U.S. Senator – perhaps the city’s most famous resident – Margaret Chase Smith. Skowhegan was also the setting for the film adaptation of Richard Russo’s novel, Empire Falls.
Skowhegan serves as regional transportation hub, as well. Four highways meet in the center of town – Routes 201, 2, 104 and 150 – and for all the talk of roads, bridges are also centrally important to the town.
Perhaps Skowhegan’s most famous bridge is the Swinging Bridge, a suspension footbridge first built in 1883 as a farmer’s shortcut to town. Connecting Alder Street and Skowhegan Island, the bridge has suffered through floods, fire and the wear and tear of time and weather to be rebuilt several times since. Most recently it was rebuilt in 2006 by the town’s Highway Department, a feat that earned the department a 2007 American Public Works Association Public Works Excellence Award.
An historic bottleneck
When Dore talks about Skowhegan’s pressing transportation concerns, he puts the downtown bottleneck at the top of the list.
The congestion is caused by a network of feeder roads funneling traffic in one central location – Skowhegan’s historic Main and Water streets that cross the river not once, but twice in less than half a mile. Since the late 1990s, the town has worked with MaineDOT to find a solution to that bottleneck. MaineDOT studied the issue and in 1998 recommended building a bypass to help alleviate downtown traffic. In 2004, local residents voted 2-to-1 in support of a “second bridge,” but opposed moving it away from the town center. Dore said the discussion of building a “second bridge” has been raised again in recent years as the town seeks to relieve traffic and open up the downtown to new business.
One of the new business ideas is to establish Run of River, a water theme park running through the center of town. Routing vehicle traffic away from the area would be important to that venture. Dore said finding an acceptable location for the new bridge that will meet local and state approval and securing funding for the project are two major challenges.
Still, advocates for the new bridge – and the water park – are not daunted. The town has set aside $1.5 million to fund construction needed for the park. Dore, who is also chairman of the town recreation committee that is spearheading the park, was at the time of the Maine Trails interview just days away from submitting paperwork needed to fulfill one of the final requirements for approval by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
To ease traffic and improve mobility, the town also has worked with MaineDOT on the start up of the Somerset Explorer, a bus service connecting Skowhegan, Madison, Anson and Norridgewock.
Eye on the future
The two projects – Run of River and finding a way to mitigate downtown traffic – are at the top of Dore’s to-do list for the near future. He worries that if a second bridge is off the table for now, the city will have to find another way to relieve traffic pressures on its downtown. Dore believes there are other solutions worth exploring, and lately has been thinking a lot about rotaries. He has researched the issue with MaineDOT and thinks it could help regulate the flow of traffic. “We need to alleviate congestion downtown, and a rotary could help with that,” said Dore.
Dore’s constant reach for innovation and eye on what is coming down the road – whether it is snow in the forecast or a change in state funding – he admitted, is a habit formed after years on the job and an appreciation for what voters in his town expect from its highway department. “People aren’t looking for savings, they are looking for service,” said Dore.