What has been learned – and is yet to be gained – from the Highway Simplification Study
By Kathryn Buxton
Many lessons can be taken away from the recently completed Highway Simplification Study. Foremost is just how difficult it is to change – even when change is so clearly called for by everyone involved.
The study, begun last year at the behest of the 124th Maine Legislature, brought together municipal officials from across the state and MaineDOT personnel to examine how the state and municipalities should share responsibility for nearly 23,000 miles of public roads. The core issue is how to care for a 4,100-mile network of “state aid” highways in an era of decreasing state and municipal funding.
“The whole reason for this study was to look at the problem of minor collectors, because there hasn’t been any capital improvements on those roads for decades,” said Skowhegan Road Commissioner Greg Dore, an MBTA board member. Dore was a member of the study’s Policy Working Group and served on the Standards and Costs Subcommittee.
The problem, as the final study report details, has roots reaching back nearly 100 years, when the Maine Highway Commission (forerunner of the Maine Department of Transportation) tried to help municipalities modernize local roads made impassable by mud tracks from the growing popularity of automobiles.
The result of that early effort to develop the state economy through investments in transportation infrastructure led to Maine’s idiosyncratic “state-aid highway” classification currently in conflict with the federal system of highway classification used by almost every other state in the country.
In Maine, to make the matter of jurisdiction even muddier, the state and towns frequently share responsibility for maintaining these minor collectors or state-aid highways. Towns provide the majority of the winter maintenance. The state maintains the roads in the summer. Subject to funding, they share capital responsibility (one-third paid through local funding/two-thirds from state funding). The study found that this unique system of shared responsibilities has led to unclear roles, finger pointing, operational inefficiency, ultimately resulting in “orphaned roads” and inadequate customer service.
Lesson 1: Change is difficult
This is where the adage about change – even positive change – being difficult comes into play. The effort by the state to migrate to a new highway classification system based on federal designation, naturally raised concerns – primarily in terms of financial responsibility.
Presque Isle Public Works Director Gerry James joined the Policy Working Group precisely so Presque Isle and other municipalities in Aroostook County would have a voice in what many viewed as a controversial study. James joined the committee midway through the process after another Aroostook County official had to step down.
At the outset, James admits to being skeptical about the state turning over responsibility for these roads, many of them deteriorating, to the towns.
“We were afraid that it was another effort to dump maintenance and responsibility on the towns for roads already in pretty rough shape,” said James. “I was not going to let that happen without speaking out.”
Lesson 2: Trust is critical
MaineDOT Deputy Commissioner Bruce Van Note acknowledged that there exists a substantial amount of mistrust of the state by towns, and that this general environment made this a tough time to perform this study. But trust was something that MaineDOT fought hard to earn throughout the process.
“We didn’t approach this as a top-down, take-it-or-leave it situation,” said Van Note. “We looked at it from the point of view that we have a big problem, and in this room, we are a group of problem solvers.”
Van Note said that solving problems is precisely what public works professionals and engineers excel at, and the desire to find workable solutions drove the study process. Much of the nitty gritty of the study was hashed out in the Standards and Cost Subcommittee, a group of 12 officials who looked at maintenance costs for minor collector roads from both a state and community level – in order to establish maintenance standards for those roads. The group surveyed 114 different communities to develop a real-world breakdown of maintenance costs.
In some cases, the data provided some surprising results, said James. Conventional wisdom has been towns could plow snow for less than the state, but when towns looked at the total cost, including depreciation and equipment maintenance, there was only about a $10-per-mile difference.
For his part, James said his trust in the process began to grow, as the group delved into these issues, and MaineDOT’s representatives on the Policy Work Group and its subcommittees listened and responded to municipal concerns.
“What really changed my mind is that the group was willing to work with each community to fix roads to that community’s standard,” said James.
Lesson 3: Aim high
The Policy Working Group tackled some very large tasks, including a re-evaluation of Maine’s Urban-Rural Initiative Program (URIP) and development of a “fix and swap” plan that would have the state take over winter maintenance on about 1,600 miles of state aid major collector highways now done by towns, and return summer maintenance and capital responsibility for about 2,500 miles of minor collector roads to the towns after they have been improved at state expense. The fix and swap elements of this plan make it very different from the “turn back” of roads in the early 1980’s.
That lofty goal, to have roads that are a low state priority be a municipal responsibility because they are more important to local citizens, is a model that almost every other state in the region now follows.
Van Note said, that in many states, jurisdiction over minor collectors falls to either local or county government. That allows those states to focus state resources to roads with a more regional and statewide benefit. For example, New Hampshire has roughly the same level of federal funding, but only has responsibility for 25 percent of roads in the state at $7.04 per mile; Maine supports maintenance and improvements on 37 percent of the state’s roads at $2.72 per mile.
But how to get there? The study group developed an improvement program to fix roads before any swap would occur called MiCHIP (Minor Collector Highway Improvement Program). Under that program, the state would fund improvements to approximately 200 minor collector miles every year over a 12-year period. Once all the minor collector roads were improved in a town, the swap would occur. The state would take over plowing of state aid major collectors, and the towns would be responsible for minor collector roads. That way, one level of government would be responsible for the road year round. Travelers and taxpayers would know who to contact with concerns. The state would continue to help towns with their capital responsibility on minor collectors in the form of ongoing partial funding for light capital pavement (also known as maintenance surface treatment or skinny mix paving). This would lead to greater simplicity, accountability, efficiency, and smoother roads.
So how much would it cost to get there? The up-front state capital investment for improvement of these minor collector roads to the MiCHIP standard would start at about $35 million, and increase about $45 million in year 12 due to inflation. Though substantial, the Study team noted that this would address about 200 miles of some of Maine’s worst roads every year in every corner of the state at a very reasonable per mile cost. That is, the traveling public would likely see value.
Despite the value, the need for capital funding is where the process broke down for some of the officials involved, including Skowhegan’s Dore. He said that one major fault of the study was that it did not address the funding issues at the core of the problem.
“That’s more than $420 million over 12 years,” said Dore, and it was obvious that the state currently does not have that kind of funding for fixing its roads. He also said that the issue of capital funding after the swap was a big issue for towns.
Lesson 4: Focus on the positive
It was the lack of state funding and confusion among communities that did not participate in the study that finally put the brakes on the effort to reclassify or “simplify” Maine’s highway system. While praising MaineDOT for its collaborative approach, the Maine Municipal Association’s policy committee voted not to support the study’s findings, despite strong support of municipal members of the Policy Working Group. Many believe that was because of the lack of guaranteed funding and the broader environment of mistrust of the state by towns.
“The swap could have been sold if there could have been a guarantee of funding,” said James. That guarantee is impossible because mandates cannot be funded from one legislature to the next under state law.
Shifting leadership in Augusta make the future of the Highway Simplification Study uncertain. It was commissioned by the 124th Maine Legislature under a Democratic Legislature and Governor. Now, with a complete change in leadership, it is an inopportune time for any major policy changes, especially those with a hefty annual price tag.
Still, many involved in the study cite less obvious achievements, including improved communications, trust and a willingness to explore more creative solutions that worked for both the state and towns. Dore said that Skowhegan was pleased to see that there was more flexibility among towns and the state to find cost-efficient ways to address everyday maintenance issues.
“I’m hoping it doesn’t stop here,” Dore said, adding that he would like to see a renewed effort to address funding for Maine’s minor collector roads, because they will continue to deteriorate if state and local leaders do not identify new sources of funding. Once Maine finds funding for roads, MaineDOT and the towns should keep the funding coming. “If by chance we find this funding, why end it?”
James said the best thing to come out of the process was a willingness for MaineDOT and towns to look at a more flexible standard for road maintenance. He also cited the commitment at the state level to search for solutions to bad roads across the state – not just in high traffic areas.
For Presque Isle, that would have meant an 82 percent increase in road assistance funding once the 12-year, fix-and-swap MiCHIP program was completed. That extra money was intended to help the community maintain the additional miles of minor collector roads. The sticking point was, and still is, how to consistently guarantee that level of funding.
“The state gets a lot of credit for listening and really making this a cooperative effort,” said James. “The final report was a real compromise, and that is the first time I’ve ever seen that level of collaboration between public works and the state.”