Western Maine profile

By John Melrose

This Western Maine region of Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties is anchored by the twin cities of Lewiston and Auburn, Maine’s second and fifth largest communities, with other significant commerce centers in and around Farmington, Norway, Rumford, Bethel and Rangeley. The Western Mountain Region is home to Maine’s five largest ski resorts and four out of 12 Maine Scenic Byways. The tourism and transportation connection is evident. With nearly a quarter of the state’s direct and indirect forest products-related jobs in this region, the importance of highway and rail service is also underscored.

The transportation challenges facing this region are significant, with condition, safety and service issues plaguing several of the region’s major highway corridors (sections of Route 2, Route 4, Route 302, Route 16 and Route 17, among other regional roads) and a hefty backlog of 95 structurally deficient bridges and 89 functionally obsolete bridges (Oxford County has more structurally deficient bridges than another other in Maine). With so many needs and a perennial lack of adequate road funding, establishing priorities is another great challenge, and there is a risk MaineDOT will fall behind in the maintenance paving that protects roads that have been reconstructed in recent years.

Background

Within Western Maine, there are 1,317 miles of interstate, state and state aid highways comprising 15.5 percent of the state road network. The only interstate access to the region is provided by the Maine Turnpike Authority on I-95 in Androscoggin County. Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties combined carry 15.5 percent of all traffic in Maine off of the interstate. Home to 14.8 percent of Maine’s total population, this region generates just 10 percent of the state’s property valuation and 12 percent of taxable retail sales. Population in the region grew by 8,288 between 2000 and 2010 at a rate of 4.4 percent. The growth for this period was 8.1 percent in Androscoggin, 2.3 percent for Franklin and 4.4 percent for Oxford.

Non-interstate traffic for the region peaked in 2003 in Androscoggin, 2004 in Franklin and 2005 in Oxford declining since then by 7.5 percent, 3.0 percent and 5.0 percent respectively from the high points. The highest Annual Average Daily Traffic (AADT) for the region off of the interstate occurs in Auburn and Lewiston at roughly 30,000 on sections of Route 202. In Franklin County, the highest AADT is on Route2/4 in Farmington at 18,210. In Oxford County, the highest AADT is on Route 26 in Paris at 19,440.

Western Maine road network

MaineDOT’s priority 1 non-interstate roads in Western Maine include Route 2, the primary east-west corridor, Route 4 from I-95 north to Route 2, Route 202 connecting Lewiston to Augusta, Route 196 connecting Lewiston to Brunswick, a portion of Route 26 in Poland and the Fryeburg section of Route 302. Priority 2 roads include Route 4 from Farmington to the Route 17 junction in Oquossoc, Route 25 in Porter, Route 26 from Bethel to Poland, Route 27 from Farmington to Stratton and from New Sharon to Rome, Route 121 from Oxford to Auburn and Route 108 from Rumford to Livermore. The priority 3 roads include Route 5 from Fryeburg to Hiram, Route 9 from Lisbon to Wales, Route 11 in Mechanic Falls and Poland, Route 16 from Rangeley to Eustis and a portion in Kingfield, Route 17 from Mexico to Oquossoc and a portion in Livermore Falls, Route 27 from Stratton to the Canadian border, Route 117 from Hiram to Turner, Route 119 from Paris to Hebron, Route 133 from Farmington through Livermore Falls, Route 156 from New Sharon to Wilton, Route 219 from Leeds to West Paris, Route 126 from Lewiston to Wales, Route 122 in Poland and Auburn and Route 136 in Durham north into Auburn.

The accompanying chart reveals that 14.3 percent of Maine’s priority 1 and 2 roads are within the tri-county region. Of the state’s D rated priority 1 and 2 roads, 13.0 percent are within the region and for F rated roads, a disproportionately high 23.1 percent are within the region. These deficiencies are particularly pronounced in Franklin County but also notable in Oxford County. With a 15.4 percent share of all Priority 3 roads, this region is host to a 23.1 percent share of all of the state’s D rated roads and an 18.8 percent share of all of the F rated roads. These deficiencies are fairly evenly distributed across the three counties.

In 2014, MaineDOT rated 161 miles of Priority 1, 2 and 3 highways in the region as D or F for “condition,” 160 miles as D or F for “safety” and 101 miles as D or F for “service.” The region experiences a disproportionate share of service issues with 37 percent of all the D or F service ratings in the state occurring in the Western Maine region. Note that, under MaineDOT’s rating system, a mile of road can be rated D or F due to deficiencies under more than one of the criteria.

Nearly a quarter of all F rated priority 1 and 2 roads are in Western Maine. For priority 1 roads, reconstruction needs persist on Route 2 in the Carthage-Dixfield vicinity, on Route 4 in Jay on Main Street and on Route 302 in Fryeburg. Priority 2 reconstruction needs are more numerous and include sections of Route 4 in Phillips and Madrid, Route 27 to the north and south of the Kingfield downtown, and Route 26 just north of the Paris downtown and in Greenwood. In 2013, the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments (AVCOG) called for investments that would eliminate all backlogs of deficient highway on Routes 2, 4, 26 and 27. As an example, MaineDOT cites 4.6 miles remaining to complete the modernization of the 43-mile Farmington to Rangeley Route 4 corridor.

The critical need for reconstruction of Route 4 was the subject of an unsuccessful 2014 MaineDOT TIGER (transportation investments generating economic recovery) application. The narrative cited “severe crowning, gravel shoulders, minimal clear zones, runoff and sedimentation impacts to the Sandy River and two deficient bridges. The department estimated total repair costs at $12.2 million with a public benefit over 50 years of $195.6 million. The benefits to completing the modernization of Routes 2, 26 and 27 would likely be comparable or greater given higher usage on these high priority corridors.

Beyond reconstruction, there is a need to catch up on the pavement preservation schedules for high priority roads now built to modern day standards. This is essential to protect taxpayer investments made in modernizing roadways and it is an obvious benefit to the traveling public. There also remain opportunities to improve system performance by adding passing and climbing lanes or by reconfiguring roadways as noted by AVCOG in their 2013 investment recommendations calling for studies on a potential by-pass on Route 26 in Woodstock and a realignment of Route 2 through Rumford.

Priority 3 roads in need of reconstruction include Routes 16 from Eustis to Rangeley and 17 from Roxbury to Oquossoc. Both of these roads are subject to posting in the spring thaw to the detriment of the area economy and forest products businesses in particular. There are also priority 3 reconstruction needs on Routes 119 from Hebron to Paris, 219 west of the Androscoggin River to Route 4, Route 126 on the west side of Sabattus, 133 in the center of Livermore Falls, 136 on the north end of Durham into Auburn and sections of Hotel Road and Lewiston Jct. Road in Auburn.

While this analysis focuses on priority 1, 2 and 3 roads, it is worth noting that the classifications are open to challenge as is the state policy to limit repair activity on priority 4 and 5 roads to just basic maintenance functions. Local observers believe the opening of I-95 Exit 86 in Sabattus created new travel ways to Route 202 via Routes 9 and 132 and Leeds Junction Road. Route 132 is priority 4 and Leeds Jct. Road is a priority 5. These classifications may deserve reconsideration. In the Bethel area, a point is raised that Route 5 south of Route 2 and Route 26 north of Route 2 should be changed from priority 4 to 3 if that is what is needed to fix them now. In the same neighborhood, the question arises as to whether the Sunday River Road should be classified higher than priority 5 given the extent of economic benefits reaped by the state from the Sunday River Ski Resort. This road provides the sole access to the resort.

 

Bridge conditions

There are 497 bridges with a length of 20′ or greater within the three counties. According to FHWA 2013 data, 95 (19.1 percent) were rated structurally deficient and 89 bridges (17.9 percent) were rated functionally obsolete. Statewide, 15.1 percent of bridges are structurally deficient and 17.7 percent are deemed functionally obsolete. There are 53 structurally deficient bridges in Oxford County alone which is the highest number by far of any Maine county. By comparison, there are 19 in Androscoggin and 23 in Franklin. Of 27 functionally obsolete bridges in Androscoggin County, 13 are related to the Maine Turnpike.

 

Within Oxford County, Rumford finds itself in an unenviable position with eight structurally deficient bridges, the most for any community in Maine. Three of these bridges receive attention in MaineDOT’s current work plan for a total estimated cost of $3.74 million. Just down the Androscoggin River is the largest bridge replacement in the work plan for the Western Maine region, the 84-year-old Peru-Mexico bridge currently posted for a weight limit of 25 tons. The project is estimated to cost $11.15 million and commence in 2017. It is among the nine extraordinary bridge needs identified by MaineDOT requiring replacement or major rehabilitation with a cost expected to exceed $10 million. The other bridge in the region on this list is the Auburn-Lewiston Bernard Lown Peace Bridge with a cost estimate of $18 million. Preliminary engineering is scheduled in 2015 for this bridge that carries 14-15,000 vehicles daily. Questions of replacement or rehabilitation are not resolved.

 

Aviation, rail, bus and trails

 

Western Maine general aviation facilities include Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport, Bethel Regional Airport, Sugarloaf Regional Airport, Eastern Slopes Regional Airport (Fryeburg), Oxford County Regional Airport, and Steven A. Bean Municipal Airport (Rangeley). None provide commercial passenger air service. The Auburn-Lewiston Airport is planning $16.3 million in investments between now and 2020 with the largest amount for design and reconstruction of runway 4-22 in 2018. The Rangeley Airport is planning a runway reconstruction project for 2021.

 

Pan Am Railways and the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad serve the region and interchange at Auburn’s Danville Junction where 2010 improvements made operations more efficient. The nearby Auburn Intermodal Facility, opened in 1994 and expanded in 2000, suffered a blow this past year as the Canadian National ceased intermodal service. Yet, the 5.4 mile Lewiston-Auburn Railroad owned by the twin cities and operated by the St Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad, retains active customers. In 2014, the Railroad, with area partners, reestablished 6,600 feet of the Rangeley Branch in Auburn and Poland opening 400 acres for rail dependent development. Beyond freight rail issues, interest remains in establishing passenger rail service from Portland to Auburn-Lewiston and onto Montreal. There is also a desire to preserve the Lewiston Lower rail corridor for future rail and/or trail use.

 

For bus transportation, Concord Coach is expected to start a new service that will connect Bates College and a new Downtown Auburn Transportation Center with a new bus terminal at Auburn’s exit 75. From there the service will connect to the Portland Transportation Center, Boston’s South Station and Logan Airport. Funding appears secure and the project is recognized in MaineDOT’s current work plan. Other investments proposed by AVCOG for the region include the addition of park and ride lots along Route 4 between Auburn and Wilton and Route 26 between Oxford and Bethel. AVCOG also recommends the establishment of a full service visitor information center and rest area in Bethel.

 

In 2014, Lewiston completed construction of the 3.5 mile, multi-use Riverside Greenway Trail and Lisbon completed construction of their 3.5 mile, multi-use Androscoggin River Trail. Both trails are part of the East Coast Greenway. Lewiston seeks to connect the Riverside Greenway Trail to Lisbon’s Androscoggin River Trail and Lisbon seeks to connect the Androscoggin River Trail to the Topsham/Brunswick trail. In Farmington, interest remains in building a bicycle/pedestrian/snowmobile bridge over the Sandy River. This bridge would create an off-road connection between downtown Farmington and the University of Maine-Farmington campus with the state-owned Whistle Stop Trail. The cost for this bridge is estimated at $1,675,000.

 

Summary

The Western Maine region is home to 14.8 percent of Maine’s total population and two of the state’s five largest communities. The road network carries 15.5 percent of all traffic in Maine off of the interstate. Yet, the region generates just 10 percent of the state’s property valuation and 12 percent of taxable retail sales. It is a fair question to ask if the region’s underperforming transportation system contributes to this relatively poor economic performance.

 

As this profile reveals, the region’s incidence of D and F high priority roads is relatively high, and Oxford County has the dubious record for the most structurally deficient bridges in the state. For regional advocates, these misfortunes are compounded by limited access to the interstate and a lack of toll equity between regions of Maine. Furthermore, there is neither commercial passenger air service nor rail passenger service. To lift the region’s economy, the performance of the transportation system needs to improve.