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Report: Maine's Transportation Infrastructure Falling Behind
12/10/2012   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Maine continues to struggle to improve the quality of its transportation infrastructure. Last week, when the American Society of Civil Engineers issued its first report in four years on the condition of the state's roads, bridges and other infrastructure, Maine received a C-minus overall. That's the same grade the state earned in 2008, and now some Democratic leaders are calling for making infrastructure improvements a priority in the next legislative session. A.J. Higgins has more.

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Report: Maine's Transportation Infrastructure Fal Listen

The balance of political power at the State House has swung back and forth since 2008. But those who rely on lawmakers for the adequate funding of state transportation projects and other infrastructure say little has changed in four years.

"Basically the overall average grade remained the same from 2008 to 2012 at a C-minus," says Will Haskell, president of the Maine section of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the group that assesses the state's infrastructure every four years.

Reviewing the overall quality of the state's highways and bridges, the organization also evaluates the state's municipal drinking water systems, airports and seaports, state parks and solid waste facilities. Haskell says that about 40 percent of the state's highways received no better than a fair grade - while others have actually gotten worse.

"Roads is one of the primary areas of concern," Haskell says. "The road category remained at a D from 2008 to 2012."

The society issued its report during a transportation conference in Augusta - the city where most of the decisions for improving state infrastructure are made. But while the Legislature and Maine voters recently approved nearly $120 million in bond proposals for infrastructure projects, Maine Gov. Paul LePage has said that he doesn't intend to borrow any more money until state spending is reduced to his satisfaction.

Haskell says the civil engineering society's infrastructure report provides important information to lawmakers, and the LePage administration.

"It shows us where we are and it shows us where we need to go, because as we all know, infrastructure really drives the economy, and if we don't have good roads so people can get to and from work and to and from the shopping areas, it's going to be tough to improve the economy," Haskell says.

"Why do we pay any attention to these reports?" asks state Sen. Dough Thomas. "The studies are designed to get an outcome that puts more money into the sand and gravel crowd."

State Sen. Doug Thomas is a Ripley Republican who has served on the Legislature's Transportation Committee. He says those in in the road construction business consistently paint an overly gloomy picture of the state's infrastructure system.

Even though state highway fund revenue is now expected to be about $20 million less this fiscal year than previously forecast, Thomas says Gov. LePage is right to refuse to borrow to offset those losses -- particularly when the state owes Maine hospitals more than $400 million in Medicaid reimbursements.

"I feel that until we get the hospital bills paid, that the governor is doing what he needs to do," Thomas says. "If I've got bills here at home that I can't pay, then I don't go borrow money to buy a new car - even at zero percent interest."

But new Democratic Senate President Justin Alfond says Maine cannot afford to ignore the repairs and upgrades that are needed for the state's infrastructure system. Alfond says infrastructure improvement projects funded by voter-approved bonds should not be placed on hold while the highways continue to deteriorate.

"With 10,000 people unemployed in the construction industry, we have plenty of people who are ready to work," he says. "We have projects that are shovel ready, and I think this is going to be a major priority of the 126th Legislature," Alfond says.

The Senate president also says that between 2006 and 2010 Maine recorded the highest fatality rate in all of New England as the result of highway accidents, and that safety concerns should also drive the discussion for transportation improvements in the next legislative session.


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