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New policy shifts more road repair costs from state to municipalities

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New policy shifts more road repair costs from state to municipalities

PORTLAND — Local taxpayers will have to dig deeper to pay for road repairs that were once the state's responsibility because major roads that do not meet minimum engineering standards are no longer eligible for state funding.

Some examples include Ocean Avenue in Portland, Broadway in South Portland and Route 88 in Falmouth and Cumberland.

The change was approved in October by the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, which prioritizes and distributes state and federal transportation grants for 15 communities in greater Portland.

PACTS Director John Duncan said the policy change is one of the ways the organization is trying to better utilize state and federal dollars for road projects. PACTS is also diverting funding from improving intersections to paving projects and is no longer funding widening projects.

Duncan said the measures have allowed PACTS to increase its biennium paving budget from $6.5 million to $8 million.

Duncan said funding will no longer be used for state collector roads, which support high volumes of traffic but are below standard, because engineering studies show that repaving roads that meet standards is a better investment.

If communities choose to rebuild collector roads to state standards, they will be eligible for PACTS funding again, he said.

Even with the policy change, Duncan said the $42.2 million that will be invested in collector roads in good condition over the next 10 years is still far below the $80 million that is needed.

According to a recent study, there are 200 miles of collector roads in PACTS communities, 80 miles of which meet state standards.

Portland Public Services Director Michael Bobinsky said he supported the policy change to prevent roads that are in good condition from falling into disrepair. Bobinsky predicted the change will not significantly affect Portland, because most of the roads are in relatively good shape.

"If we only have $5 million a year, the potential for us to maintain the good roads is severely eroded and we will just fall farther and farther behind," Bobinsky said.

The policy change brought heightened anxiety to a budget meeting in South Portland last week. The city has fallen behind in paving its local roads and has struggled to adequately fund a paving program through its budget. 

South Portland City Manager Jim Gailey said he was one of five community representatives to vote against the policy change, which he said would put more of a burden on municipal governments.

"We struggle just to keep up on our secondary roads," Gailey said. "We went from paving 40 to 50 roads a year down to paving 15 to 20 roads, because the price of petroleum and asphalt went up."

Gailey said the policy change gives South Portland an additional seven miles of roads to pave, which would cost $12 million to bring up to standards.

Cumberland Town Manager William Shane said the town will now have to shoulder the costs of fixing Route 88. But residents, however, are circulating a petition to prevent the town from borrowing the $4.5 million to pay for the work.

"This is a significant impact for us," Shane said.

Falmouth Town Manager Nathan Poore said he supported the policy change because it was clear that PACTS would never have the funding necessary to catch up. The cost of reclaiming roads climbs "exponentially," he said.

While it is expected to cost Falmouth $19 million to pave 11 miles of collector roads, Poore said he is not concerned about the responsibility falling on the town. Without having to meet state standards, he said, roadways could be fixed for significantly less, using only local dollars.

"It's not unreasonable to think it would be half that (amount)," Poore said.

Meanwhile, Duncan said PACTS is in the early stages of drafting a program to reward municipalities that invest local dollars into their roads. That program would allow those communities to earn credit toward other transportation and trail projects also administered by PACTS.

Although the policy committee voted 7-6 against the credit program, Duncan said it will be reconsidered at a future meeting.

Also, Bobinsky said PACTS is lobbying state officials to reconsider the state standards for roads in an effort to maintain safety while using less costly construction methods.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net