By John Melrose
The Midcoast region has many transportation challenges. With a large percentage of Midcoast highways rated priority 4 and 5, the region also has a relatively high number of highway miles that perform poorly for condition and safety. Among Midcoast region roads in need of investment: County Road in Rockland, Route 32 Jefferson-Waldoboro and Route 1A in Frankfort, as well as remedies for the Wiscasset bottleneck on Route 1.
Bridge rehabilitation and repair is another considerable need for the region, with 16.1 percent of the region’s classified as “structurally deficient” and 23.2 percent of its bridges “functionally obsolete.” Some of the region’s other pressing needs are marine: replacement of a key island ferry, repair of the deteriorating Rockland municipal pier and long-overdue maintenance of the deep-water channel in Searsport Harbor.
Between the Androscoggin and Penobscot rivers lie the mid-coast counties of Knox, Lincoln, Sagadahoc and Waldo. The relative ease of waterborne transport opened this region to settlement from the earliest colonial periods into the steamship era. Seaports, ferries and fish piers remain today as important transportation infrastructure, but the region depends most heavily on highways to move people and goods.
Within the mid-coast region, there are 1,114 miles of interstate, state and state-aid highways comprising 13.1 percent of the state road network. Interstate access only exists in Sagadahoc County where three interchanges are provided. The region carries 12.7 percent of all traffic in Maine off of the interstate and includes 11.2 percent of Maine’s total population. Traffic and population are rather evenly distributed amongst the four counties but both are concentrated on the Route 1 corridor. Population growth between 2000 and 2010 was negligible in Knox and Sagadahoc, while Waldo grew by 6.9 percent and Lincoln by 2.5 percent.
Non-interstate traffic for the region declined in recent years, with a 4.6 percent drop in Sagadahoc, an 8.6 percent drop in Waldo and in Lincoln and Knox a drop of 7.4 percent and 7.8 percent respectively. The highest annual average daily traffic (AADT) for the region occurs in Bath on the Route 1 Leeman Highway at 32,720 in 2010. By comparison, on I-295 just south of the Route 196 interchange in Topsham the 2010 AADT was 27,850. Wiscasset continues to manage heavy volumes within the two-lane village area with a 2010 AADT peak of 20,250 that receded somewhat by 2013. Route 1 in Rockland is the only other stretch of road that experience similar high traffic levels. Further northeast in Prospect, the 2010 AADT for Routes 1 and 3 declines to 8,200.
Mid-Coast road network
MaineDOT’s priority 1 non-interstate roads within the mid-coast region include Route 1 from West Bath to Prospect and Route 3 from Palermo to Belfast where it joins Route 1 onto Prospect. Priority 2 roads include Route 1-A from Winterport to Stockton Springs, Route 17 from Rockland to Whitefield, Route 27 in Dresden and Wiscasset and Route 90 from Warren to Rockport. The priority 3 roads include Route 27 from Route 1 in Edgecomb south, Route 32 from Route 1 in Waldoboro north, routes 137 and 7 from Belfast heading northwesterly, Routes 202/9 through Unity and Troy and Route 24 (Main Street) in Topsham. In Knox County, there are no priority 3 roads and in Sagadahoc, a small section of Route 24 in Topsham is the county’s only priority 3 road.
The accompanying chart reveals the region’s 10 percent share of Maine’s priority 1 and 2 roads with disproportionately few D and F rated roads at 6.3 percent and 7.8 percent respectively. With only a 4.4 percent share of all priority 3 roads located within the region, there are 4.3 percent rated D and 2.6 percent rated F. Compared with the 2013 ratings by MaineDOT, this 2014 data reveals fewer D ratings overall. There is an uptick in F ratings for priority 1 and 2 roads from 5.6 percent to 7.8 percent and a downturn in priority 3 F ratings from 7.6 percent to 2.6 percent. While 13.1 percent of all state roads are in the region, there are relatively few priority 1, 2 and 3 roads and conversely a disproportionately large share of priority 4 and 5 roads. This is significant since current state policy provides little more than a maintenance effort on these low priority roads.
In 2014, MaineDOT rated 38 miles of priority 1, 2 and 3 highways in the region as D or F for “condition”, down from 59 miles in the 2013 data. “Safety” D or F ratings fell from 73 miles in 2013 to 62 miles in 2014 and “Service” D or F ratings remained essentially unchanged at just over seven miles. A mile of road can be rated D or F due to deficiencies in one, two or three of the criteria.
While the region’s priority 1 and 2 roads are relatively good, major reconstruction needs remain on Route 1 in Searsport, on sections north and south of Lincolnville village, in Thomaston and in Warren. A Warren Route 1 project is under construction presently with a 2015 completion anticipated and a Thomaston Route 1 project is set to commence in 2015. Projects on Route 1 in Searsport and in Camden approaching Lincolnville are in the MaineDOT work plan for 2016/17. A very challenging priority 2 section remains in Frankfort on Route 1-A. In addition, poor pavement conditions on otherwise good roads exist on sections of Routes 1 and 17.
On congested areas of Route 1, where land use is not intense, consideration should be given to constructing additional passing lanes. The elephant in the room remains Route 1 in Wiscasset where the notion of a bypass is now set aside indefinitely as the focus shifts to implementing a series of traffic management recommendations to enhance mobility and improve safety. Still, the successful relocations of Route 1 decades ago in Damariscotta-Newcastle and in Belfast continue to offer solid testimony to the value of a carefully designed bypass that improves traffic flow while preserving downtown settings.
There are priority 3 reconstruction needs on sections of Route 32 in Jefferson and Waldoboro and on Route 137 in Knox. A bigger issue for the mid-coast is the lack of roads designated as priority 3. Of all of the peninsulas, only Route 27 from Edgecomb to Boothbay is designated a priority 3. With water to the east, west and south, the peninsulas are generally dependent on one route in and out. This heightens need for a good road but also underscores an efficiency for taxpayers compared to other communities with road networks serving all directions on the compass. The classification of the peninsula roads deserves a closer look as does the wide qualitative difference in conditions on the priority 4 highways serving the peninsulas. A comparison of the variable design treatments on Routes 130, 129 and 32 on the Bristol peninsula underscore this point. Finally, for different reasons the priority 4 classification of County Road in Rockland is questioned where the AADT hit 7,640 in 2013. Rockland seeks improvements to this road and MaineDOT is planning to address some of these needs beginning in 2016.
There are 267 bridges with a length of 20′ or greater within the four counties. According to FHWA 2013 data, 43 (16.1 percent) were rated structurally deficient and 62 (23.2 percent) were rated functionally obsolete. Statewide, 15.1 percent of bridges are structurally deficient and 17.7 percent functionally obsolete. There are four rather new, major bridges in the region including the brand new replacement of the Richmond-Dresden Bridge, the Penobscot Narrows Bridge, the Merrymeeting Bay Bridge and the Sagadahoc Bridge.
Still, some large bridge challenges remain. A December 2015 advertise date is anticipated for a major renovation of the quarter-mile-long, two lane Bath viaduct built in 1958. With an estimated $13.6 million price tag, this project poses extraordinary traffic management challenges. The repair is expected to provide another 50 years of life to the structure. To the west, the Frank J. Wood span crossing the Androscoggin River at Topsham-Brunswick will begin preliminary engineering in 2015. This bridge, the Bath viaduct and seven other structures are on MaineDOT’s extraordinary bridge needs list where estimated costs exceed $10 million per span.
Aviation, marine, rail and buses
Mid-coast public aviation facilities include Belfast Municipal Airport, Islesboro Airport, Knox County Regional Airport and Wiscasset Airport. Among these, only the Knox Airport provides commercial service. It ranks third in the state for enplanements at 15,724 in calendar year 2013. Runway rehabilitation and extension projects are scheduled for this airport in 2015 and 2016 for a total estimated cost of $3 million. Belfast is planning a $2.2 million project for 2017 to include runway and taxiway construction while Wiscasset is planning a $1.4 million runway reconstruction for 2018.
The port of Searsport, last dredged to a channel depth of 35 feet in 1962, is distinguished on the east coast for its lack of maintenance dredging. Due to shoaling and federal regulations, a 31-foot restriction at low tide is now in effect. This causes transits to be timed with high tide and reduces port efficiency. The Army Corps of Engineers proposes dredging the channel to 40 feet. Environmental testing, analysis and review continues, but if a favorable conclusion is reached, the $12 million project still needs Congressional authorization and funding to proceed. Separately, the berths at Mack Point are expected to be dredged in the near future by private interests, and Sprague Energy and MaineDOT continue investing to add capacity at the terminal.
The Maine State Ferry Service operated by MaineDOT serves the major islands in Penobscot Bay with mainland transfer bridges in Rockland, Lincolnville and Bass Harbor. Over the last two decades, many upgrades to the facilities were undertaken so today the infrastructure is considered in good condition overall. The major capital need facing MaineDOT is replacing the Margaret Chase Smith Ferry within the next 10 years. Another marine transportation need in the region is found at the Rockland municipal fish pier. It was built in part with state bonds decades ago and today faces numerous challenges including deteriorated surfaces and the regular appearance of sinkholes on the deck of the pier. Recent engineering studies justify a major rehabilitation and modernization of this actively used facility. In the 126th Maine Legislature, a bond of $1 million was proposed to fix this pier. It failed passage.
The new Central Maine & Quebec Railroad connects the port of Searsport to Northern Maine Junction in Hermon and continues on to Montreal with double stack container capacity throughout. CMQR is now focused on rebuilding traffic on the line following the demise of the former Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railroad. The state owns two mid-coast rail corridors. On one, the Belfast and Moosehead Lake Railway offers limited seasonal, passenger excursion service and on the other, known as the Rockland Branch, the Maine Eastern Railroad provides year round freight service and seasonal passenger excursions. The Rockland Branch conditions are among the best for rail owned by the state. However, the Kennebec River rail crossing at Bath-Woolwich is now under study to determine an appropriate rehabilitation strategy and schedule.
Concord Coach provides interstate bus service along Route 1 throughout the region with connections to Bangor, Portland and Boston. The city of Bath provides a fixed-route service within the city while Waldo County Public Transportation and Coastal Trans out of Rockland serve general public and special needs with fixed-route and on-demand services.
Route 1 is the region’s most important transportation asset, and it is reassuring to see four of the most pressing Route 1 reconstruction needs appear in MaineDOT’s current work plan. On the other hand, timely preservation pavement treatments are not always evident for this and other high priority corridors. The chokepoint on Route 1 in Wiscasset remains, and time will tell if traffic management is enough to mitigate mobility concerns. Across the region, road classifications should be reexamined. Statewide, half of all roads are priority 1, 2 or 3 but in the mid-coast only 28.6 percent are so classified and the interstate only serves the western fringe of the region. The mid-coast’s diverse mix of highway, marine, rail, aviation and trail infrastructure could with further transportation investment spur a more robust tourism economy. The port of Searsport unshackled could also be a much bigger contributor to the mid-coast and state economy.