Minor Collector Roads: MDOT program has supporters, detractors
(from Maine Townsman, April 2001)
by Douglas Rooks, Freelance Writer

The always interesting relationship between local and state government over road improvements has taken a new turn with implementation of the Minor Collector Reconstruction Program. It's part of the Urban/Rural Initiative Program - better known as URIP - which now forms the core of the Maine Department of Transportation's local aid programs. Approved by the Legislature in 1999, with the first asphalt being laid last summer, the minor collector program addresses a discomforting reality - these state-owned roads had received virtually no reconstruction work in almost 20 years.

The Highway Fund's revenue weaknesses are long standing. Growth in fuel taxes and licensing revenue have lagged far behind sales and income taxes, and in each of the last three bienniums, MDOT has received an infusion of General Fund dollars. It's scheduled to get more help this year: The latest transportation bond issue of $61 million, including $41 million normally charged to the Highway Fund, will instead be backed by General Fund borrowing, under a King administration proposal now before the Appropriations Committee.

MDOT has also tried to face reality by admitting that, after scheduling reconstruction for arterial roads and the major collectors, there wasn't any money in its own budget for minor collectors - and won't be any. Conditions this spring have put the state's failure to work on its 2,200 miles of minor collectors, about one-quarter of the state highway system, on vivid display. A bumper crop of frost heaves and broken pavement have kept phones at MDOT ringing off the hook. Blue Hill selectmen were so incensed about the condition of state routes in town that they demanded a meeting with Commissioner John Melrose, according to a front-page story in the Ellsworth American.

This record of inaction is what prompted the Maine Municipal Association to agree to endorse a one-third local match for reconstruction of these state-owned roads. "The alternative," said Dana Lee, the town manager of Mechanic Falls who chaired the MMA committee, "was to have them go back to cow paths."

The minor collector program replaces part of what used to be the Local Road Assistance Program (LRAP), for which URIP is the successor. It rationalizes work on the collector roads, of both categories, which used to fall under a competitive grant program called the Collector Road Development Awards. Although minor collectors were eligible, it was mostly major collectors that were funded, requiring a local match of 25 percent. Under URIP, the state will no longer require a local match for major collectors, saving up to $90 million in future matches, according to MDOT figures. URIP also allocates an additional $3.5 million a year for local aid, chiefly for cities whose matching requirements under Urban Compact agreements were steeper than for rural highways. The new program will also include a cost-of-living increase for future years; local aid has often been flat-funded.

Minor collectors rank below arterial highways, which carry the major traffic flows, and below major collectors, which funnel traffic to the major routes. The minor collectors primarily carry local traffic, though some are numbered routes and may be important town-to-town links.

A Good Deal?
Is the new program a good deal? As usual, there's a diversity of opinion. Peter Coughlan, director of MDOT's Community Services Division, said the process began with a survey of the nearly 300 towns and cities that have minor collectors. About half said they might be interested, and 30 said they'd have money available in 2000 or 2001. Of those, 16 projects were included in the first round (See Table I) and will be completed by this summer; a few are already finished.

Dave Bernhardt of MDOT Regional Planning emphasizes that the program is not competitive, and that the intent is to accommodate all towns that come up with the match. The program began with $6 million in state funding for 2000, raising $9 million in all, and is slated to receive $5 million from the state each of the next two years, raising a total of $15 million for the next biennium. The proposed $1 million reduction in state funds has raised concern. But Bernhardt said that there should be enough money to accommodate all towns that apply; there's still some money left from last year.

Coughlan said the first year saw reconstruction of 30 miles, and another 50 miles will be rebuilt over the coming biennium; costs average $300,000 a mile. "Of course there are thousands of miles to be done," he said, "but at least we're getting somewhere again."

Dana Lee believes the program is fair because "It's the town's choice. If you want to participate, fine. If you don't, that's your choice, too." Mechanic Falls, as it happens, has about eight miles of minor collectors, and all are now in reasonable shape, he said. A final segment was reconstructed under the now-defunct CRDA program. Mechanic Falls is unusual; few towns have minor collectors in anywhere near top condition. Returning to the subject of deferred maintenance, Lee said, "It may be that some towns are OK with the idea of cow paths. It may be the roads aren't important to them."

Making the deal over minor collectors was a pragmatic decision, Lee said. "The state's position was, We're not going to do anything. These are the lowest priority roads, and there's nothing you can do about it." Now, with the state commitment to match local funds, "Towns can say, I have some money and you must come and fix the road."

To Derik Goodine, town manager of Levant, it's not that simple. Towns may be able to choose to participate, but not everyone can afford to, he said. Small towns with modest tax bases will be hard-pressed to come up with the $100,000-a-mile match, he said. He noted that Levant was selected for two CRDA grants, but the town meeting rejected the match.

Taxpayers shouldn't be blamed, he said. Levant, a growing town northwest of Bangor, has nearly doubled its population in the last 20 years, to 2,171, but its tax base is almost entirely residential. Its current state valuation of $63.3 million, or $29,157 per capita, is well below that of most, though not all, of the 16 towns participating in the new program, whose median per capita valuation is about double Levant's (See Table I).

In testimony before the Legislature last year, Goodine said that the minor collector program shares some problems with CRDA: "Some towns had no chance of raising the 25 percent match, and some towns refused to participate, and some sections of the roads were of no interest to the town through which they passed, such as a route that cuts across a remote corner. I believe that little will change under the URIP minor collector road program." A fairer system, he said in an interview, would tie the local match to a community's ability to pay.

Townspeople have long memories, too, he said. In 1982, the state clarified a previously vague system of shared maintenance by turning over to towns 2,800 miles of improved LRAP roads and 600 miles of unimproved roads. The state was supposed to take care of the rest, "and they haven't done that," he said. Levant has a highway reserve fund, but it totals only $12,000. The town has three minor collectors, totaling 4.6 miles, and Goodine thinks it unlikely that Levant will reconstruct them soon. It's still busy on the eight miles of road it got from the state in 1982.

Such criticism notwithstanding, there are several positive features to the new program, Dave Bernhardt said. One is cost-efficiency. Towns can take the lead on the road projects, and some are. Bids for town projects generally come in below those for state construction. "We're don't do the gold-plating," Dana Lee said. "You put a 'State of Maine' stamp on a project, and the cost goes up just like that."

Bernhardt said towns "are definitely quicker," and in the construction business, time means money. Lee said, "You can find the old gravel pit that still has enough for one job, or find a place to park construction vehicles without paying rent." Towns in control are often happier, and Bernhardt said that's fine. "Any time they want to do it in-house, or with a consultant, we're pleased."

Case Studies
Windham was one of the first towns to take advantage of the new program, reconstructing more than a mile of the Falmouth Road for $450,000. Windham has a public works department with 20 employees, and did the roadwork itself, although it hired a consulting engineer.

"We didn't really expect to do it this soon, but the opportunity came along and we took it," said Town Manager Tony Plante. He said the state was working on another portion of the road, though it usually avoids minor collectors, and the section rebuilt under the new program was "as bad or worse than what they were fixing." State officials, he said, "were concerned that it would be a long time before they were back," and the new program bridged the gap. Although Windham has other minor collectors needing attention, completion of the Falmouth Road has put the town "in pretty good shape," Plante said.

Voters approved a $3 million bond issue for town roads last year, and Windham spends $500,000 annually on maintenance and repaving. It found the $150,000 match for the Falmouth Road project in the current operating budget. Plante said, "There are state routes in town that have long been sore spots, but we've been able to get some things done ourselves, and that keeps people happy."

In Hermon, the state will reconstruct a mile and a half of the Billing Road this summer, one of six minor collectors in town, "all of them in pretty bad shape," Town Manager Steve Tuckerman said. Hermon's road fund was relatively flush, and the town came up with the necessary $150,000. The town council, while not thrilled, "was realistic about that. They knew that otherwise it wouldn't get done at all," he said.

Hermon couldn't supervise a project on its own, but it could hire a consultant. Tuckerman said he'll recommend the town council do that in the future, based on what he said was a disappointing experience with the state's reconstruction of the Union Road, Route 222, last year. The project required a lot of blasting, and shortly thereafter nearby landowners reported salt in their wells. While Tuckerman said "it's pretty obvious" the construction was responsible, the state has resisted paying, and has even been reluctant to share the test results from the University of Maine.

He said the state also ignored the town's advice on resetting mailboxes, with the result that snowplows knocked down many of them: "The state was responsible for what happened, but it's not the state people being called, it's us. Nothing gets people madder than not being able to get their mail."

Hermon may rebuild two miles of the Fuller Road in the near future, and if it does, Tuckerman hopes the town, not the state, will take charge.

A Smooth Crossing
Whatever bumps the minor collector program has endured, it's been well enough received for the state to use it as a model for disentangling responsibility for hundreds of bridges around the state.

Commissioner John Melrose, who took office with a MDOT flush with federal bridge funds, thanks to the clout of then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, had to scramble to come up with the state match for the Casco Bay Bridge in Portland Harbor, the Sagadahoc Bridge over the Kennebec River, and the new Donald Carter Bridge in Waterville. He then took a look at the deferred maintenance on bridges and came up with the depressing conclusion that it would take more than 100 years, at current rates, to fix them - well beyond their expected lifespan. "You had every kind of bridge under state programs," he recalled recently, "even dead-end streets serving a handful of people."

MDOT sought to rationalize the collector roads by taking responsibility for the major ones and sharing it with towns for the minor ones. Its legislation to do the same for bridges, LD 1626, is currently whizzing through the Legislature as an emergency measure. Sponsored by the co-chairs of the Transportation Committee, Rep. Charles Fisher and Sen. Christine Savage, the bill - also supported by MMA - will give the state responsibility for all spans 20 feet and longer, while delegating shorter spans to municipalities. Towns would decide where and when to work on these spans.

Dana Lee said this municipal involvement in bridge repair decisions should be a relief for towns which previously had little say on such matters. Before, you received a state letter saying, "Congratulations. We're fixing your bridge. Here's the bill." Dave Bernhardt said the new system creates an incentive for towns to oversee the work. Previously, state rates applied and towns had to pay them. Now, if costs are lower, towns share in the savings.

An Uncertain Future
While the bridge and collector road programs may clarify responsibilities between the state and municipalities, there remains the question of whether there's enough money to get the job done. While MDOT has doubled the miles of road it's reconstructing annually, thanks in part to better pavement evaluation, that's only half the mileage done in the 1970s, Melrose points out.

MDOT's basic revenue is shrinking. Fuel tax receipts are projected to increase just 1 percent each of the next two years, far below inflation and even further behind General Fund revenues. The fuel taxes produce more revenue only if drivers rack up more miles, and that's not happening.

But when MDOT sought to stabilize road programs with a 5 cent fuel tax increase in 1999, it ran into a legislative buzz saw, barely escaping with 3 cents. "We still need the full 5 cents," Melrose said recently, while adding that the administration won't ask for it this year.

Ultimately, state aid programs depend on the amount of money the state can raise. The only way towns and cities may be able to get a steady supply of state dollars for local roads and bridges is to convince lawmakers to regularly adjust fuel taxes.

The minor collector program's $10 million state share, for instance, is dependent on the new $61 million bond issue. Sen. Peter Mills, who sits on Appropriations, has proposed an alternative to General Fund backing. He would attach a one cent fuel tax increase to the referendum question to cover the interest - and let the voters decide. While an unusual strategy, the results might persuade legislators that taxpayers aren't quite as opposed to higher gas taxes as they think.

Minor Collector Reconstruction Participants (2000)

Population  State  Valuation
Town  County  (2000 Census) Valuation  per capita
Ashland  Aroostook  1,474 $ 75.6 $ 51,289
Blue Hill Hancock  2,390 319.8 133,807
Bucksport  Hancock  4,908 445.9 90,851
Cumberland  Cumberland  7,159 545.6 76,211
Farmington  Franklin  7,410 252.9 34,129
Fort Kent Aroostook  4,223 120.0 28,415
Hermon  Penobscot  4,437 208.7 47,036
Hiram Oxford  1,423 66.4  46,661
Newcastle  Lincoln  1,748 137.3 78,546
Newry  Oxford  344 195.0 566,860
Phippsburg  Sagadahoc  2,106 222.1 105,460
Poland  Androscoggin  4,866 253.4 52,075
Waterboro  York  6.214 278.3 44,785
West Paris Oxford  1,722 51.4 29,849
Windham  Cumberland  14,904 765.5 51,362
Yarmouth  Cumberland  8,360 830.2 99,306
* State Valuation is in millions of dollars



State Highway Mileage

Category  Mileage
Arterials  2,554
Major Collectors 3,448
Minor Collectors 2,200
Total  8,269
Source: Department of Transportation