Washington County profile
By John Melrose
The transportation challenges for all of rural Maine can be seen in close-up in Washington County, where many miles of state-maintained highway and more than 100 bridges vie for too few highway dollars. While there are plans in the works to address two iconic Maine bridges – replacement of the Beals Island Bridge, classified as functionally obsolete, in 2016-17and preliminary engineering for the FDR Memorial Bridge, classified as structurally deficient, set for this year, the county has many aging more bridges to address. Also important will be allocating funding to preserve the pavement on Route 9 – a major connector for the county – sections of Route 1 and Route 1A. Even further on the horizon are a $52-million extension of freight rail to the port of Eastport, seen as key to the region’s continued efforts in economic development.
The Bold Coast Scenic Byway extends 125 miles within Washington County and exemplifies one of the East Coast’s last vestiges of peace, tranquility and unspoiled ocean-side beauty. These qualities are a great draw to travelers looking for a place to relax and put their mind at ease. A transportation system equal to these attractions that also supports the region’s natural resource based economy is vital to the county’s prosperity.
Larger than Delaware and Rhode Island together, the county population is just over 32,000 with the majority living in only 10 of the 44 towns and two cities in the county. The rural nature of this region is obvious. The county is home to 6.4 percent of all state highways in Maine, yet these roads carry only 3.4 percent of all non-interstate vehicle miles traveled statewide.
Prospects for growth are not evident in annual traffic counts conducted by MaineDOT. Over the past decade, total county traffic volume declined 16 percent, the highest county decline in Maine. Ironically, to reverse this decline, a first rate transportation system is needed. Nothing makes this point clearer than the successes realized through the partnership of the Port of Eastport and the Woodland pulp mill, the county’s largest employer.
Washington County road network
Washington County’s priority 1 and 2 highways are Routes 1, 1-A, 9 and 190. As the accompanying chart indicates, these roads represent 6.6 percent of all such miles in the state. The county share of all D rated priority 1 and 2 roads in Maine is 8.1 percent and the share of all F rated priority 1 and 2 miles is 7.7 percent. For priority 3 roads, the county share of D ratings is 8.4 percent and for F ratings, 5.7 percent. Priority 3 roads include Route 1 north of Calais and a section connecting Milbridge, Cherryfield and Harrington as well as Routes 6, 182, 193 and 189. There are 79 miles of priority 1, 2 and 3 highways in the county rated D or F for condition, 77 miles rated D or F for safety and 10 miles rated D or F for service concerns.
MaineDOT has made substantial progress in modernizing Routes 1, 9 and 190 over 25 years. Route 190 into Eastport is in excellent condition, and now MaineDOT and the community are turning their attention in 2015 to upgrading County Road, which connects Route 190 to the port facilities at Estes Head. Route 1 from Perry to Calais is in good condition following numerous reconstruction projects. However, other sections of Route 1 need attention. At least three sections between Jonesboro and Edmunds totaling 10.17 miles are still in substandard condition. Also, 3.4 miles on Route 1-A between Milbridge and Harrington are in very poor condition. This section was known for ripping off oil pans in the 2014 spring thaw. MaineDOT acknowledges each of these needs in its current three-year work plan, but only the Jonesboro-Whitneyville section of Route 1 is scheduled in 2015 and that is set as a highway rehabilitation project.
Route 9 throughout the county is largely built to modern day standards, but is at risk. The concern for this – and other improved roads in the county – is the condition of the pavement. Currently these roads face losing the value of the investments made due to insufficient preservation paving. This circumstance unfortunately underscores MaineDOT’s contention that it has a preservation paving budget that is falling 35 percent short of need.
Also of relevance to the county is the proposed Route 9 and I-395 connector in Penobscot County that would improve safety, reduce travel time and move heavy truck traffic out of downtown settings.
A further concern is the county’s lack of paved shoulders and passing and turning lanes along sections of Routes 1 and 1-A and other roads used by freight and recreational users. The Washington County Council of Governments is preparing plans to address these concerns. The soft, sandy shoulder material common in the county easily drifts away from the pavement edge. This creates hazards for motorists and bicyclists and presents environmental concerns associated with run-off. Soft shoulders are commonplace on state highways connecting Routes 1 and 9, as well as on the routes traveling down peninsulas to Machiasport and Jonesport.
Half of the highways in Washington County are split equally between the priority 4 and 5 classifications. State goals for these roads focus almost exclusively on pavement treatments so most will only receive periodic maintenance paving or “skinny mix”. Some priority 4 roads might deserve reclassification to a priority 3 to assure a level of repair more consistent with the use of the road. For example, Routes 214 and 191 are classified as priority 4, but truckers moving between the Port of Eastport and the Woodland pulp mill use these roads frequently to reduce their travel times.
Ironically, to reverse this decline, a first-rate transportation system is needed. Nothing makes this point clearer than the successes realized through the partnership of the Port of Eastport and the Woodland Pulp mill, the county’s largest employer.
There are 102 bridges of 20’ or greater in the county representing 4.2 percent of all bridges statewide. Of these bridges, a disproportionately high share of 24.5 percent are rated structurally deficient by the Federal Highway Administration and a disproportionately low share, 4.9 percent, are rated functionally obsolete. Statewide, 15 percent of all bridges are considered structurally deficient and 18 percent are functionally obsolete.
Perhaps the most significant bridge need in the county is the Beals Island Bridge that passes over the Moosebec Reach at the Beals-Jonesport town line. This functionally obsolete bridge is scheduled for a 2016/17 replacement in the MaineDOT work plan for an estimated cost of $9.7 million. The structurally deficient FDR Memorial Bridge in Lubec appears in the department’s work plan for preliminary engineering in 2015. On Route 191 in East Machias and in Meddybemps structurally deficient bridges are scheduled for replacement in 2015.
Aviation, marine, rail and trails
Washington County has five general aviation air strips located in Deblois, Eastport, Lubec, Machias and Princeton with none offering commercial air service. The MaineDOT work plan is scheduling a $4.3 million runway reconstruction project for 2017 at the Machias Airport and a $2.6 million runway reconstruction project for 2017 at the Princeton Airport.
Rail is limited to Calais and Baileyville entering from Canada. There is abandoned state owned rail still in place on the eastern end of the old Calais Branch that extends from Calais to Charlotte. An excellent all season, multi-use trail, the Downeast Sunrise Trail, is in place on the balance of the former Calais rail line. A multitude of hiking trails are spread throughout the County.
Marine transportation includes international ferry service running from Eastport to Deer Isle, New Brunswick. Additionally, the Port of Eastport Marine Terminal is located at Estes Head with a second breakwater pier located in downtown Eastport. The breakwater pier experienced a dramatic failure in 2014 and is now scheduled for major rehabilitation. By far, the most ambitious transportation investment proposed for the county comes from the Eastport Port Authority. The Authority seeks to re-establish freight rail service to Perry along the eastern end of the Calais Branch line to serve the Port. A study of this proposal was completed last year. It established an estimated cost of $52 million for the project.
The accomplishments realized to date by the port of Eastport serve as a welcome reminder of the importance of having a vision, a can-do attitude and persistence in making transportation investments that grow the economy of this region and the state of Maine. The proposed project, and others like it, deserve serious consideration.