A crumbling road is not the route to economic growth

June 4, 2015 by

“If the governor and legislature want vibrant downtowns and a thriving economy, they must invest in our roads and highways. If they don’t want our downtowns to crack and crumble like our street surfaces, they need to tackle the grim lack of highway funding with a robust highway bond and new revenues for the highway fund. And they need to do it now.”

Early in my career, I was the town manager in South Berwick, Maine, a charming little town with an historic village center surrounded by grassy farmlands, bordered by the Salmon Falls River, and, each June, on show to thousands of people eager to taste the summer’s first sweet strawberries at its strawberry festival.

Route 4 transects the little town, passing by the historic, white, clapboard home of Sarah Orne Jewett through the leafy downtown, passing Central School, edging by town hall, and skirting around Berwick Academy, before winding its way into New Hampshire.

The MaineDOT maintains Route 4, a state highway. When I lived there 25 years ago, the street was always plowed, sanded, center-line-painted, and periodically resurfaced. Sidewalks were groomed. Potholes were filled. And each spring, the state would sweep away the old winter sand making it spic and span for the strawberry festival revelers.

Route 4 is the town’s entry point to the Interstate and to the service hub in neighboring Dover, NH. It is how people get around. It is how they reach shops, restaurants, and schools and attend town meetings. It is how businesses move their goods. Like many main streets across Maine, Route 4 in South Berwick nourishes economic and community life.

From Route 1 in Presque Isle to Route 4 in Farmington to Route 201 in Gardiner, these roads are the lifeblood of our rural communities. But today many of our rural main streets are wearing thin from neglect and poor financial decisions by state budget writers.

Maine’s rural road system is vast and much of it suffers from lack of maintenance and repair. A recent report by a transportation research group ranked Maine eighth in the U.S. for the worst rural roads stating that 26% of Maine’s rural roads have poor pavement condition contributing to a disproportionately high number of highway fatalities.

The state highway fund that helps pay for road repairs is nearly bankrupt thanks to shortsighted action in 2011 that reduces gas taxes over time. As a result the state highway capital plan is likely to go unfunded this year.

The governor and legislature also have a poor record of approving bonds for highway repairs in recent years. In 2014, they assembled no transportation bond package at all. Over the past four years, they put forward transportation bonds totaling  a bare $199 million. These dollars are a drop in the bucket compared to the $1.19 billion dollars needed to make over 2,500 miles of deteriorating Maine roads safe and structurally sound

If the governor and legislature want vibrant downtowns and a thriving economy, they must invest in our roads and highways. If they don’t want our downtowns to crack and crumble like our street surfaces, they need to tackle the grim lack of highway funding with a robust highway bond and new revenues for the highway fund. And they need to do it now.

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