The overall condition of Maine’s state highway system improved markedly in the most recent nationwide survey.
Maine improved from 27th to 17th in the nation between 2003 and 2004 in the annual survey conducted by David T. Hartgen, a civil engineering professor at the University of North Carolina. The survey looks at Maine’s 8,500 miles of state road, not the 14,000 miles of local roads.
“ Maine’s in pretty good shape compared to other states,” said Hartgen.
But that doesn’t mean the roads themselves are in good shape. Hartgen’s rankings are a cumulative score based on many factors. Maine gets good marks for the relative absence of traffic congestion, lean administrative overhead, and a low fatality rate. But it gets much lower marks for actual road surface conditions. Maine, for example, is ranked 38th in pavement conditions on its network of rural primary arteries. Maine is also ranked 38th in condition of its bridges.
There are more stresses on Maine highways than some other states, Hartgen notes. Trucks up to 100,000 pounds are allowed on Maine roads, where they are banned in some states. The freezing and thawing cycles are more pronounced than in southern states.
“ Maine does a good job under difficult circumstances – weather elements, truck weights, and an aging system stretched to limit,” said Hartgen. “On top of all is a relatively weak state economy that has difficulty competing for growth nationally. It’s not easy to operate a highway system squeezed in so many directions.”
Hartgen notes that Maine’s high maintenance budgets are related to low investments in road reconstructions, corroborating a concern expressed repeatedly by some key highway leaders.
Some 23 percent of Maine’s highway budget goes into maintenance, which is almost fifty percent higher than the national average of 16 percent, he said. “ Maine has one of the highest shares of maintenance of any state,” he said. That’s not a healthy situation because neglect of capital investment will snowball and eventually drive up overall costs faster.
Maine’s overall improvement was a distinct reversal from its performance over the past decade when it slipped from its top ten ranking in the mid-1990s to in the low teens to dramatic slide from 17th to 27th in 2003.
“I thought that was the beginning of the end ... that was a real tumble,” said Hartgen.