MDOT/MMA Partnership Delivers Positive Results

(from Maine Townsman, October 1999)
by John G. Melrose, Commissioner, Maine Department of Transportation

Two years of hard work has paid off. After working hand in hand with Maine DOT to develop a legislative package, municipalities now have new tools to deliver needed transportation improvements. In addition to important provisions of the Urban Compact Initiative, the Legislature:

• Increased funding for municipal road assistance by $3.5 million per year;

• Created an indexing mechanism for automatic growth in municipal road assistance in the future;

• Entirely removed municipal capital responsibility for major collector highways while retaining municipal cost sharing for capital work on minor collector highways, relieving towns of a net match requirement of $90 million;

• Raised $21.75 million for investments in major collector highway corridors in the FY 2000-2001 BTIP with no municipal match requirements, saving towns $5 million in this biennium alone;

• Waived Collector Road Development Award program municipal matches for planned or executed major collector projects, forgiving $2,8 million owed to MDOT;

• More than doubled the Local Bridge Program in two bienniums;

• Raised $1 million for municipal sand/salt storage reimbursement;

• Repealed the mandate for low-priority towns to build sand/salt storage facilities saving municipalities $18 million and the state Highway Fund $32 million; and

• Created a mechanism to encourage municipalities to administer state highway projects to save money for both state and local taxpayers.

The Rural Road Initiative, which encompasses some of these provisions, also created a framework from which to build an aggressive state aid minor collector reconstruction program for the first time in decades. In the 1980s and 1990s there has been minimal capital investment in Maine’s network of minor collector highways, compared to over one hundred miles of reconstruction each year in the 1970s. The Rural Road Initiative presents an opportunity to return to an era of aggressive rural highway improvements. Yet there is much more work to be done in order to deliver projects under this program.

Under the new law, municipalities will pay up to 33.3% of costs for capital work (major improvements) on state aid minor collector highways. The state will contribute 66.6%. Municipal administration of the construction work can save significant money for both towns and state taxpayers. There is no change in maintenance responsibility on these roads. The goal is to fund and launch this new program in the 2002-2003 biennium, with an MDOT budget and BTIP to be presented in January/February of 2001.

To determine the level of municipal interest, MDOT recently surveyed all municipalities. with 200 municipal responses as of October 1, 1999, roughly half of the municipalities are interested in participating, contributing as much as $15 million over six years to rebuild hundreds of miles of rural highways across all of Maine.

While this strong response is very encouraging, there is an understandable hesitation by many towns to participate in the program. We at MDOT have a challenge to develop financing tools, additional incentives, and efficient administration in order to make this program appealing to all towns. The Legislature asked that we report back to them in the year 2001 on these issues. I hope that even more towns will show an interest in the program in future years.

The next big challenge will be to raise over $30 million in state funds over a six year cycle to make this program a reality. In the next year, MDOT will be working extensively with MMA, towns, and legislators to prepare for this new program. The strong municipal interest in this program strengthens the chances of raising new funds in an era of many competing initiatives. The fact that municipalities are willing to put money on the table to leverage state funds is a critical indicator to demonstrate to state legislators the importance of rural highway reconstruction.

While many towns question making a financial commitment to state-aid minor collector roads, the national perspective sheds important light. Nationally, only 25 % of minor collectors fall under state jurisdiction, compared to 1009% in Maine. In Vermont and Massachusetts, minor collectors are nearly entirely the responsibility of municipalities. New Hampshire municipalities contribute to capital work even on major collectors.

Municipal officials interested in more details on the Rural Road Initiative should call Pete Coughlan at MDOT Community Services at 287-2152. By working together, we can make rural highway reconstruction a reality.