Fix It Now! profile
By John Melrose
Kennebec and Somerset counties have a long transportation history that centers on the Kennebec-Chaudiere Rivers, Old Canada Road and the Arnold Trail. Each of these served as a trade route connecting the Gulf of Maine to the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Route 201 is a modern day manifestation of this corridor. It parallels the Kennebec River and the Arnold Trail north to The Forks and includes all of the National Scenic Byway known as Old Canada Road. At the southern end of this region, average daily traffic in Augusta on I-95 exceeds 36,000, while on Route 201 at the Canadian border, travel averages just 1,400 vehicles a day.
Within the region, there are 1,217 miles of state and state-aid highways split almost evenly between the two counties. Those miles comprise 14.3 percent of the state road network. The region accounts for 13.4 percent of all traffic in Maine off the interstate, with two-thirds of this traffic occurring in Kennebec County. Similarly, the region is home to 13.1 percent of Maine’s total population with 70 percent in Kennebec County. Both counties experienced population growth between the 2000 and 2010 censuses.
Kennebec-Somerset road network
Compared to other parts of Maine, the Kennebec-Somerset region experiences average to better-than-average ratings for priority 1, 2 and 3 highways, as illustrated by the accompanying chart. MaineDOT ratings for these high priority highways reveal few miles within the region (2 percent) receiving a grade of D or F for service deficiencies. On the other hand, nearly a quarter of the priority 1 and 2 roads and one-third of the priority 3 roads receive a D or F for condition, while about one-sixth of the miles have been cited for safety concerns.
MaineDOT’s priority 1 highways include: I-95 through both counties; Route 2 serving east-west traffic in Somerset; and Route 3 in Kennebec connecting Augusta to Belfast. These roads are in comparatively good condition. The region’s priority 2 highways include: the important north-south corridors of Route 27 and 201 (north of Waterville); Route 17 connecting Augusta to Rockland; Route 201A between Norridgewock and North Anson; and Route 16 from North Anson into Franklin County. Here again, conditions are considered good, except on some of the more densely settled segments, as well as on Route 201 in Caratunk, where MaineDOT is now preparing a highway reconstruction project.
Highway priority 1 and 2 needs for Kennebec and Somerset counties relate less to existing conditions and more to improvements that would maximize the value of existing investments, enhance productivity and spur economic development. On Route 2 and on 201 north of Skowhegan, this means building more passing and climbing lanes and providing more directional signage and parking for area tourist attractions such as as Moxie Falls. In the Augusta region, it means extending the I-95 connection to Route 3 over the new Cushnoc Bridge, around the east side of the city to Route 17. In Waterville, the addition of a new I-95 interchange at Trafton Road would ease congestion at Exit 127 and improve access to an extensive area zoned for commercial and industrial development. On hold, pending community consensus, is the decades long discussion on moving heavy truck traffic out of Skowhegan’s downtown. There also remains the longstanding question of how best to connect Maine to the economic centers in Canada to the east and west, i.e., an enhanced east-west route.
Where highway rehabilitation and reconstruction work is needed in the region, it tends to be within villages, downtowns and urban compact areas on priority 1, 2 and 3 highways. These needs pose greater costs per mile and frequently require intense community discussion before consensus is attained on a design. With needs elsewhere that are easier to tackle, the densely settled sections often end up on the back burner.
Examples of more densely settled highway segments in need are: Water Street in Hallowell (Routes 201/27 - a priority 1 highway); Mount Vernon Avenue in Augusta (Routes 11/27/8 - a priority 2 highway); Route 27 through Belgrade Village (another priority 2 highway); and Routes 6/15 in Rockwood Village (a priority 3 highway). There is also a scattering of priority 3 reconstruction needs throughout the region, notably Routes 201A/8/16 in Embden, Route 8 in Belgrade and Route 41 in Mount Vernon. Moscow and Bingham town leaders favor an emergency ramp for runaway trucks descending on Route 16 into their communities. For most of these projects and the ones listed in the more densely settled areas, MaineDOT is either putting projects into their upcoming plan or is in active discussion with the public to arrive at a preferred design.
Within the region there are 350 bridges with spans 20 feet or greater. MaineDOT rates 12 percent of those structurally deficient and another 22 percent as functionally obsolete. Statewide, 15 percent of all bridges are considered structurally deficient and 18 percent are functionally obsolete. Somerset County has a disproportionate share of functionally obsolete bridges at 31 percent. Within the region, 36 out of 76 bridges deemed functionally obsolete are on I-95, with 14 under the jurisdiction of the Maine Turnpike Authority and the rest under MaineDOT jurisdiction. Of the 42 bridges found structurally deficient, five are on I-95. A word of caution: these numbers change as repairs are made and as new inspections are conducted. That said, progress addressing the backlog of deficient bridges in the Somerset-Kennebec region and throughout the state has stalled, after the state spent down a $160 million bridge bond authorization approved by the Maine Legislature in 2008.
The extent of the problem ranges from the heavily traveled interstate bridges down to locally important municipal bridges. Two examples in the region highlight municipal concerns. Late last year, MaineDOT was compelled to post a three-ton limit on the Bog Road Bridge in Benton, forcing snowplows, fire trucks and school buses to take a long detour to make their run. At the time, the emergency response teams estimated that the posting added more than 12 miles and critical time to emergency calls. The road served by the bridge is a priority 6 local road. In another case, Skowhegan and Canaan are faced with either abandoning a bridge on Red Bridge Road that crosses Carrabassett Stream or participating in a cost sharing project with MaineDOT, provided the community and the department can locate the funding. Across Maine, low-volume and/or redundant bridges like the Red Bridge Road crossing are in line for similar consideration.
Aviation, trails, buses and rail
The region’s general aviation airports include Augusta, Jackman, Norridgewock, Pittsfield and Waterville. The Augusta State Airport is the only one providing commercial air service. In 2013, Cape Air carried 5,550 passengers between Boston and Augusta, 4,450 short of the number needed to gain an FAA entitlement of $1 million.
The University of Maine at Augusta, in cooperation with Maine Instrument Flight at the Augusta Airport, is now in its second year offering a bachelor of science in aviation. This initiative is a first for higher education in Maine and a unique economic development initiative that is driving new employment for instructors and mechanics, at the same time creating demand for new hanger space. Norridgewock’s Central Maine Regional Airport is seeking to extend its 4,000-foot runway by 1,000 feet to better serve area businesses including New Balance and Backyard Farms. The airport owns the land needed and is looking for FAA financial participation before construction can begin.
Area trails include nationally renowned segments of the Appalachian Trail and the East Coast Greenway. The most heavily used bike-ped trail is the 18-year-old, six-mile Kennebec River Rail Trail. The majority of this trail is off road and runs parallel to the Kennebec River between Augusta and Gardiner. In Gardiner, an extension along Cobbossee Stream is planned. Kennebec Messalonskee Trails, an organization that operates in the greater Waterville area, actively promotes new trail development and has 18 individual trails and loops already in place. Trail systems are also in place and being developed in Skowhegan, Bingham-Solon and in the Forks.
The region boasts a network of snowmobile and ATV trails. The Kennebec Valley Council of Governments’ Draft Regional Bicycle Plan is available on their web site. The KVCOG long-term vision is to establish a dedicated bicycle or multi-use trail the length of the Kennebec River. The plan includes calls for consideration of a bike route from the Forks to Greenville.
Pan Am Railways’ main line runs roughly parallel to I-95 through the region while Maine’s newest operator, the Central Maine and Quebec Railway, assumes the former Montreal, Maine and Atlantic line running east-west through Jackman. Pan Am service north to Madison and on to North Anson is now discontinued with little expectation of its return. MaineDOT owns the Augusta Lower Road from Augusta to Brunswick. Passenger rail proponents are urging the return of service to Augusta on this line with connections to the Downeaster in Brunswick. The former American Tissue Mill site, now owned by the city, is favored as the station location for passenger rail service.
The Kennebec Explorer, operated by Kennebec Valley Community Action Program (KVCAP), provides scheduled bus service in the Augusta, Skowhegan and Waterville areas. KVCAP initiated a commuter run in 2011 between Augusta and Waterville, and in 2012 KVCAP began the Skowhegan service. In the 2000-2001 operating year, the Kennebec Explorer carried 36,018 passengers. Ten years later KVCAP’s passenger count rose to 44,273 and in the 2013-2014 operating year, ridership increased to 82,813. KVCAP hopes to connect the Skowhegan service to the rest of the system in the future with stops at Kennebec Valley Community College. KVCAP interchanges with interstate carriers Concord Coach Lines in Augusta and Greyhound in Waterville.
Finally, the Kennebec River, one of the three historical transportation routes mentioned earlier in this article, remains a centerpiece of the region’s infrastructure. Once a significant maritime shipping route, the Kennebec also hosted log drives, and numerous ferry services linked communities on its banks. Today, it provides both transportation and recreation with boat ramps throughout, marinas on the tidal sections, whitewater rafting on the northern reaches and fishing along the way – an example of transportation infrastructure supporting the state and regional economy.