State transportation plan covers a lot of ground
Jan. 27—Three hundred bridge projects. More than 3,000 miles of paving. A long-awaited connector for the Eastern Trail. Hybrid ferries.
The Maine Department of Transportation outlined plans for these projects and hundreds more in a sweeping work plan for the next three years released this week. The total cost would be nearly $4 billion in federal and state funds, and the list ranges from small improvements (installing or replacing traffic signals) to big ones (nearly $131 million in freight rail infrastructure improvements).
"For many years, the Maine DOT was stuck in what I call 'MacGyver' mode, which is more defense and doing your best to patch things up and take care of what you have," Commissioner Bruce Van Note said. "In recent plans, we've shifted to offense. We've shifted from making do to making pragmatic progress."
Nearly half of the money would come from federal sources, including a $1 trillion infrastructure bill that passed in 2021. That bill supports investments in roads and bridges, public transportation, passenger and freight rail, electric vehicles, modernizing electrical grids, airports and water systems. It increased annual funding and also included competitive discretionary grant programs that Van Note said will benefit Maine in years to come.
Gov. Janet Mills earlier this month proposed a $400 million investment in transportation in her budget package for the next two years. Half of that money would come from the state's General Fund, the other half from a state transportation fund. She said that record spending would eliminate the need to borrow money this year for expensive upgrades, and would help the state catch up on projects that have been delayed or changed because of rising costs for fuel, material and labor.
The transportation work plan includes a wide variety of projects — $11 million for pedestrian safety improvements, transportation studies in village centers, matching funds for electric buses in Portland and Biddeford, work on a transportation hub and visitors center near Acadia National Park — that could make it easier to get around in Maine.
"This isn't just a highway and bridge plan," Van Note said. "It's truly multimodal and truly in every part of the state."
Here's a sampling of the projects on the horizon:
CLOSING THE GAP
The plan includes the construction of a 1.4-mile path between South Portland and Scarborough that will finally close a key gap in the Eastern Trail.
The work will be paid for with $5.5 million in state and federal funds and another $600,000 in private donations. The Eastern Trail Alliance posted an update on Facebook this month that said bidding would begin soon: "Great news!! We have the final trail easement completed to move forward with construction, and it is anticipated that the Close the Gap project connecting Scarborough and South Portland will be ready to go out to construction bidding by January 30, 2023. Please remember this project will take 18-24 months to complete, but we plan to get started soon!"
The completed section will allow trail users to travel completely off road between Bug Light in South Portland and Thornton Academy in Saco. The state work plan describes the connector as "the largest active transportation project MaineDOT has undertaken in more than a decade."
Van Note said the department also will pursue grant funds for another 2.7-mile section of the Eastern Trail in North Berwick, Wells and Kennebunk.
GETTING ON TRACK
Nearly $131 million in the plan is allocated to improvements to Maine's freight rail infrastructure. That includes operational improvements on state-owned rail lines, improvements at railroad crossings, and improvements to critical rail bridges and other rail-line capital projects.
Van Note pointed to the Maine Woods to Water Rail Connection Project, to improve the freight lines between Millinocket and Searsport. The cost could be $56.8 million and is awaiting the approval of a major federal grant. That project is "the linchpin" in the development of the state's first facility to export wood pellets, the commissioner said.
"The One North Forest Products Campus and rail corridor will send Maine-manufactured wood pellets across the globe," Mills said in a statement in November, "creating good-paying jobs in Millinocket, bolstering the forest products supply chain across rural Maine, and further positioning Maine's forest products industry as a leader in meeting the world's growing need for clean and sustainable energy sources."
UPDATING AN AGING FERRY
The plan includes money to upgrade the state's aging ferries to hybrid-electric ones, including $33 million in federal funding to upgrade the 35-year-old vessel that serves Islesboro.
The Maine State Ferry Service runs to six island communities, but the Islesboro route is the busiest. The ferry serves 600 residents who live year-round on the island in upper Penobscot Bay, and carried over 180,000 walk-on passengers and 73,000 vehicles in 2019.
The state will receive $28 million for the new ferry, which will take at least two years to build and will not likely be operational until 2027. The funding also includes nearly $5 million to improve staffing, maintenance and customer communication at the ferry service in the face of rising costs.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, co-signed letters of support for those projects and announced the award in a news release Thursday.
"Maine's year-round island communities are a vital part of our state's history, culture, and economy, and the ferries that serve them are critical and in need of modernization. As we electrify our auto and trucking fleet and expand our network of charging stations throughout the state, ferries are a natural extension of that evolution and shouldn't be left behind," Pingree said. "This funding will not only maintain vital ferry service but will also make operations more reliable and climate friendly as we build a more sustainable future."
Pingree lives on North Haven, another island that relies on the state ferry line.
"Maine's ferries are indispensable to those who live and work in our island communities, providing passenger, freight, and postal services and transporting students to school and people to their jobs," Collins said. "As the vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee and a member of the core group of 10 Senators who authored the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, I have strongly advocated for funding to ensure that residents and visitors can continue to access safe and reliable ferry service to the island communities along Maine's coast.
"By improving recruitment and retainment efforts for vessel crews and implementing an environmentally friendly engine technology, these investments will enhance the future of ferry service."