By John Melrose
Home to Maine’s third-largest city and a robust manufacturing and commercial region that is second only to Portland in the tonnage of freight originated in the area, the future of the Penobscot-Piscataquis region rests on the health of its transportation system. As in other parts of the state, the condition of the two counties’ highways and bridges is a major concern, particularly with 144 miles of the region’s most traveled state highways earning a “D” or “F” for safety and 52 bridges classified as structurally deficient (another 51 bridges are rated functionally obsolete). Some of the region’s most heavily traveled roadways are in need of work: sections of Route 2 in Dexter, Route 15 in Bangor and Route 9 in Eddington, as well as Route 1A in Hampden, Route 2 in Milford-Newport, Route 7 in Dover-Foxcroft and several others. Finding a way to fund transportation system maintenance improvements will be key, as well as investing in some lower-priority roads, such as the Lily Bay Road, that are essential to the region’s tourism industry.
The transportation system of Penobscot and Piscataquis counties is defined by the rivers that bear these same names. Settlement patterns are closely aligned with the Penobscot and Piscataquis Rivers where early settlers found economic opportunity in the transportation and power these waterways provide. Bangor, the northernmost navigable access point for maritime traders, evolved as the focal point for commerce and continues to hold that position today. As such, it is at the center of the region’s transportation network not just in terms of highways but also for rail, bus and aviation. The greater Bangor region competes with the Portland urban area for originating the most freight tonnage in Maine.
Within Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, there are 1,299 miles of interstate, state and state-aid highways comprising 15.3 percent of the state road network. Penobscot County easily tops the state for interstate mileage at 111. Piscataquis has no interstate presence. The region carries 11.4 percent of all traffic in Maine off of the interstate with 87 percent of this traffic occurring in Penobscot, the third highest traffic count in the state. This two county region includes 12.9 percent of Maine’s total population with 90 percent in Penobscot, the third most populous county. The population of Penobscot County grew from 2000 to 2010 by 6.2 percent while Piscataquis’ population declined by 1.1 percent for this same period.
Penobscot and Piscataquis road network
MaineDOT’s priority 1 roads for this region include I-95, Route 9 east of Bangor and Route 1-A south of I-395 in Brewer. Priority 2 roads include Route 16 between Milo and I-95, 15 from Greenville to Bucksport, Route 7 from I-95 north to Dexter, Route 23 from Dexter north to Guilford, Route 1-A in Hampden to the I-395 junction in Brewer and Route 46 between routes 1-A and 9. The accompanying chart reveals the region’s 16.8 percent proportionate share of Maine’s priority 1 and 2 roads with a 17.4 percent share of all D rated roads in Maine and a 9.6 percent share of all F rated roads. The region’s share of priority 3 roads is 18.9 percent with a 13.6 percent share of all D ratings in Maine and 14.7 percent share of all F ratings.
This information is provided by MaineDOT and was released in late 2014. Compared with data from MaineDOT for the prior year, the priority 1 and 2 roads with D ratings rose by 3.4 percentage points while the F ratings fell by 4.4 percentage points. For the priority 3 roads, the D ratings fell slightly while the F ratings increased by 2.7 percentage points.
Outside of the greater Bangor urban area, the priority 1 and 2 needs, like other areas of the state reflect the current inadequate financing of the pavement preservation program which is placing at risk prior reconstruction investments in the network. Additionally, there are notable needs in the region for highway reconstruction and rehabilitation such as on Route 7 within the Dexter business district, portions of Route 16 north of Old Town, Routes 6/15 in Abbott-Guilford, and Route 46 in Eddington and Holden. The list expands as the priority 3 roads are considered with examples of reconstruction needs appearing in Parkman on Route 150 on the border with downtown Guilford, Route 2 in Milford and Newport, Route 6 in Springfield, Route 7 in Dover-Foxcroft and on Route 11 from Millinocket to Brownville and from Exeter to Corinth. In 2014, MaineDOT rated 155 miles of priority 1, 2 and 3 highways in the region as D or F for “condition,” 142 miles as D or F for “safety” and 12 miles as D or F for “service.” A mile of road can be rated D or F due to deficiencies in one, two or three of the criteria.
The Lily Bay Road is classified as priority 4, and it begins in Greenville heading north to the Lily Bay State Park and on to Kokadjo and the vast expanse of Maine’s North Woods. Tourism interests view this road as critical to accessing destinations of statewide and national interest. The condition of this road is not viewed as adequate to support these tourism assets.
MaineDOT and FHWA recognize the Bangor Area Comprehensive Transportation System (BACTS) as responsible for planning and funding transportation capital investments within a service area that includes part or all of 10 municipalities and the Penobscot Nation. The economic reach of this urban area is vast, yet the transportation investment resources are meager relative to the need. With roughly $2.5 million available each year and well over four times that in project needs, BACTS is forced to focus principally on preservation paving. The one highway reconstruction project listed in their current capital plan addresses only a portion of a deteriorated and outdated section of Route 1-A in Hampden.
The mismatch between needs and available funding is also found in Bangor on Route 15 west of I-95 where high traffic volumes and design deficiencies are now the focus of a BACTS corridor study. The interstate, which is a MaineDOT responsibility within the urban area, is also noted for design deficiencies associated with the interchanges. An example is at the Hogan Road interchange that is now being studied by the Department.
Major highway capacity building projects proposed for the region include the East-West highway and the Route 9/I-395 connector in Brewer. While there is much speculation about the location of the East-West Highway, it is considered likely to enter the region on the east side via the Stud Mill Road and cross the Penobscot River at Costigan. From there, the route is less well defined but the desire is to cross the border with Canada somewhere between Coburn Gore (Route 27) and Sandy Bay (Route 201). The proposed Route 9/I-395 connector would link Route 9 to the southern terminus of I-395 in Brewer to improve the safety and efficiency of network operations. A project study is underway with an environmental impact statement circulated in January of 2015 and an application for a Section 404 permit pending.
Penobscot and Piscataquis counties have 357 bridges with a length of 20’ or greater. According to FHWA 2014 data, 52 (14.6. percent) were rated structurally deficient with an average age of 70 and 51 (14.3 percent) were rated functionally obsolete with an average age of 51. Statewide, 15 percent of bridges are structurally deficient and 18 percent functionally obsolete. Interstate bridges in the region include seven deemed structurally deficient and 12 considered functionally obsolete.
A notable need is the Howland-Enfield Bridge, a 68-year-old structure that crosses the Penobscot. Construction of a replacement is scheduled to begin in 2015. In the course of successfully applying for a TIGER grant to help fund the replacement, MaineDOT performed a benefit-cost analysis that revealed a ratio of 8.7 with total benefits over 50 years of $164.7 million and total costs of $18.9 million. While the economic impact of transportation investment is often cited as a given, it is less frequently documented. In this instance, the case for investing is made dramatically for a bridge with average annual daily traffic (AADT) of 4,810.
Further up river is the structurally deficient 64-year-old span crossing the Penobscot between Chester and Lincoln with an AADT of 5,470 and presumably an equal or greater economic impact, given comparable distances to the next crossing up or down river. MaineDOT has this bridge scheduled for a bridge deck replacement in 2016/17.
Then there are the two 61-year-old, functionally obsolete, bridges adjacent to each other on Stillwater Avenue crossing the Stillwater River in Old Town. With an AADT of 17,150, these bridges are also scheduled for preliminary engineering in 2015. The 87-year-old Route 6/11/16 bridge crossing the Piscataquis River in Milo with an AADT of 3,450 also is scheduled for preliminary engineering in 2015. This is the oldest structurally deficient bridge in Piscataquis County. The nearest alternative crossing of the River would be in Dover-Foxcroft roughly 15 miles upstream.
Aviation, buses and rail
The region’s premier non-highway transportation service is the Bangor International Airport (BGR) that serves a catchment area extending into the Canadian Maritimes with a customer base of more than 680,000. In 2013, BGR experienced its best year for commercial air service since the 1990s. Enplanements and deplanements totaled more than 480,000, and the airport expected to equal this count in 2014. The airport serves many other functions such as providing space for 26 aviation-related tenants and hosting an airport-wide employment of roughly 1,500 jobs. BGR is a joint civilian-military air base and, as noted in the news on occasion, it is an emergency landing field for trans-Atlantic flights. BGR is launching a $10 million modernization of its domestic terminal to improve efficiency and the customer experience. The airport’s five-year capital improvement plan also includes rehabilitation of Taxiway A and ramp improvements.
Other airports within the region are located in Dexter, Dover-Foxcroft, Greenville, Lincoln, Millinocket and Old Town and there are upgrades and improvements planned for each of these. Greenville looks to construct a parallel taxiway in 2016 at an estimated cost of $2.9 million, while Lincoln plans to reconstruct a runway in 2018 for an estimated cost of $2.7 million. Millinocket hopes to construct a new crosswind runway for an estimated $3 million in 2022 and Old Town expects to reconstruct two runways for $4.3 million in 2015.
The region is served by three freight rail carriers: Pan Am Railways (Springfield Terminal); Irving Transportation Services (Maine Northern Railway and Eastern Maine Railway); and the Central Maine & Quebec Railway, the successor to Montreal, Maine & Atlantic. While numerous setbacks within the paper industry have dampened traffic, there is an upsurge in business within the Irving system and evidence that Central Maine & Quebec Railway is working hard to restore service. Irving Transportation Services, in partnership with the state of Maine and supported by federal funding, is demonstrating the value of investing in rail to establish competitive and reliable service. The Central Maine & Quebec Railway appears to have a similar understanding of this need.
The Community Connector bus service operates within the greater Bangor urban area, covering 103 road miles. The Connector provided 942,632 rides in 2013. A long-standing capital need for the Connector is the upgrade and modernization of the downtown hub facility in Bangor. Interstate bus service is provided by Concord Coach Lines and Greyhound out of the Bangor area, with Concord connecting to Portland via midcoast and I-95 routes. Cyr Bus Lines, with support from the state, provides a daily connection between Aroostook County and Bangor, while West Transportation, with state subsidy, connects points in Washington and Hancock counties with Bangor.
While the region’s most important roads are in better condition than those in other parts of Maine, significant needs for improvement remain on priority 2 and 3 roads. The big need on the priority 1 system is the completion of the proposed Route 9 connector to I-395. There are also major outstanding bridge needs for crossings of the Penobscot and Piscataquis Rivers. The condition of the region’s interstate bridges will become a growing concern, as the useful life of these structures nears an end and the Bangor area interchanges reflect modernization needs to improve on design, safety and functionality. The greater Bangor urban area is at the core of the region’s economy. To spur the productivity of the region, this urban area should offer the best in service across all modes of transportation.