Fix It Now! Profile
By John Melrose
Aroostook County, "The Crown of Maine", is the largest county east of the Mississippi and, as such, transportation is a big deal. In addition to being home to a network of 1,106 state highway miles, 12.7 percent of all state roads, there are more than 2,500 miles of private roads. While these private roads primarily serve the forest products industry, they also are important to the state and regional tourism industry.
To the east, north and west are numerous border crossings into Canada including ports of entry in Houlton and Van Buren. There are aviation facilities with Cold War and World War II service records and, of course, the Military Road built in the early 1830s and instrumental in the "Bloodless Aroostook War" of the late 1830s. The County is home to three scenic byways, the occasional transatlantic balloon crossing, an extensive all-season, multi-purpose trail system and, since June of 2011, a resurging rail service, the Maine Northern Railway.
Of all Maine counties, Aroostook experienced the most significant loss of population – 17.3 percent – since the 1990s. Outmigration now appears to be slowing and, with a 2010 census of 71,870, Aroostook is Maine's sixth most populated county. Non-interstate travel in The County declined by 11 percent since hitting a peak in 2004 and today represents 5.8 percent of all such travel in the state.
Aroostook’s economic fortunes rely heavily on reliable, safe and efficient transportation services. Yet, priority 1 and 2 highways in The County reveal a disproportionate share of the state's "D" and "F" rated roads, as illustrated in the accompanying chart. In contrast, Priority 3 highways fare better relative to the rest of the state, but there is a distinct need for paved shoulders throughout the region on these highways to improve safety for motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians and a growing number of roller skiers. The influx of Amish communities into the region and their use of horse-powered transportation provides another reason to expand the presence of paved shoulders.
The National Highway System includes I-95 in southern Aroostook and Route 1 from Houlton north to Madawaska. These priority 1 corridors need reconstruction in Blaine, Mars Hill, Grand Isle and Van Buren. The region's priority 2 highways include: Route 1, Madawaska to Fort Kent; Route 161, Fort Kent to Caribou; Route 89, Caribou to Limestone; Route 167, Fort Fairfield to Presque Isle; and Route 163, Presque Isle to Ashland. Of these highways, the greatest needs are again in the St. John Valley and include Route 1 in Frenchville and Route 161 between Fort Kent and Cross Lake. In all, there remains more than 20 miles of reconstruction needs on priority 1 and 2 highways in The County.
There is also one new highway in the works for Presque Isle: the second installment of the long discussed North-South Highway. The first installment was construction of a controlled access highway bypassing Caribou's downtown and connecting Routes 1 and 161. The Presque Isle project, now scheduled for advertisement in the first half of 2015, will connect Route 167 to Conant Road east of the downtown with a current construction cost approximating $10 million. Further heavy lifting is needed to fund the next planned section that would connect Conant Road south to Route 1 near the Westfield-Presque Isle boundary. This project and the Caribou project sort out a conflict common in The County when a high priority road must serve as both a mobility corridor for through traffic and as Main Street for local commerce and services.
As noted in the accompanying table detailing highway ratings, Aroostook's state highways rarely receive a poor rating due to service issues like congestion or road and bridge postings. The poor grades instead pertain to condition or safety. While reconstruction is recommended on the roads noted above, preservation paving is the more common need on priority 1 and 2 highways already built to modern standards. A section of Route 11 north of the 212 junction provides but one example of a paving need long past due.
Within The County, there are 219 bridges with spans 20 feet or greater. Of those, 11 percent are rated structurally deficient and another nine percent are rated functionally obsolete. Statewide 15 percent of all bridges are structurally deficient and 18 percent are functionally obsolete, so Aroostook bridges fare better on average.
However, of particular concern is the 94-year-old Edmundston-Madawaska Bridge crossing the St. John River. Statewide, the average bridge age is 49 and the national average is 41. The St. John River bridge is a border crossing and it has been difficult to achieve consensus on a new location. Time is of the essence and two nations, a state, a province and two communities must come together for a solution that then needs to be designed, permitted and built. Just up river, the folks in Fort Kent and Claire, New Brunswick might have some advice to offer on waiting until it is too late. After 12 years of effort, a replacement bridge and border crossing facility opened this year but not in time to avoid some serious transportation dislocations. Heavy truck traffic was rerouted 15 miles, resulting in up to an additional 60 miles on a round trip.
Aviation, Rail and other modes
Not all transportation needs are met by the public sector, and increasingly public-private partnerships are forming to meet critical transportation needs. A shining example of the potential for such arrangements exists today in the form of the Maine Northern Railway (MNR). Four years ago there was considerable doubt that Aroostook would keep its rail service but today, through a public-private partnership, service continues and is thriving. By year-end, rail traffic is expected to grow fourfold from the 2011 inception of the MNR. Employment at the railroad is up from an initial 23 to 57 today. Sidings are busy and capital improvements are evident everywhere on the line. Ongoing investments in rail, ballast and ties, as well as in sidings, yards, bypasses and wyes, are increasing MNR operating efficiencies with service dividends to customers. New business opportunities, including recent efforts to bring a rail car manufacturer to the Loring Commerce Center, have the potential to reopen rail service to the former air base.
The story of aviation in Aroostook may be less upbeat. There are four general aviation airports in The County: Caribou, Frenchville, Houlton and Presque Isle. Loring is presently classified as a private airport. Only Presque Isle's Northern Maine Regional Airport offers commercial service providing daily direct connections to Boston. Passenger enplanements at this airport hit a high of about 47,000 in 1978. Airline deregulation followed and enplanements dropped by half only to recover briefly in the late 1980s. Today enplanements are just over 11,000. If enplanements drop below 10,000, there is an accompanying risk of losing $1 million in Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) entitlement funds. As across the state and in The County, the Northern Maine Regional Airport stays on top of capital needs with steady support from the FAA and some matching assistance from the state. The need at the airport is to support the attraction of more flights, to more airports with better connections to major carriers.
The County is also served by Cyr Bus lines with a single daily round trip beginning in Caribou and connecting with Presque Isle, Mars Hill, Houlton, Oakfield, points further south and on to Bangor to interchange with Concord Coach and Greyhound. Over the past 10 years annual ridership has ranged from 13,510 in 2004 to a high of 17,512 in 2008. The service carried 15,338 in 2013. Bus service is also provided by the Aroostook Regional Transportation System, a non-profit providing demand response services on a scheduled basis throughout all of Aroostook County.
Last but not least in the roll call of Aroostook transportation facilities is the very impressive all-season trail network that serves both residents and tourists. The trail network includes 2,300 miles of snowmobile trails, 1,200 miles of ATV trails and 31 mapped water trails with about 250 miles for paddling. The Northern Forest Canoe Trail covers 740-miles of waterways and traverses New York, Vermont, Quebec, New Hampshire, and Maine terminating in Fort Kent at the confluence of the Fish and St. John Rivers.
As is true across Maine, opportunities abound for capital investments in transportation that will sustain and propel the Aroostook economy. There is a case for reconstructing poor and failing priority 1 and 2 highways in the St. John Valley and proceeding with the replacement of the Edmunston-Madawaska Bridge. The addition of paved shoulders on priority 3 highways would greatly enhance safety. Keeping the momentum going on the north-south highway project in Presque Isle is critical, as are continuing investments in rail throughout The County. New ideas are needed to build commercial air service. The interface of The County's extensive public and private road networks should be re-examined with an eye toward improving the productive use of these assets both in the unorganized townships and at the Loring Commerce Center. Much is left to be done.