Transportation leaders say lack of bridge repair threatens safety, connectivity and is expensive for Mainers


April 9, 2011

Maine has significantly more than the national average of deficient bridges, according to a new report released by Transportation for America. The report shows that more than 15.4 percent of the state’s bridges are deficient and in need of reconstruction or rehabilitation. The national average is 11.5 percent, according to the report.

After the bridge collapsed in Minneapolis in 2007 Governor John Baldacci had the state review its bridges. Once those results were issued he presented the legislature with a bond package in 2008. Now those funds are beginning to run out.

The Fix We’re In For: The State of the Nation’s Bridges found that across the country, more than 70,000 bridges are in need of major repair or replacement. The report ranks Maine’s inventory of bridges as the 12th worse in the nation. Pennsylvania, with 26.5 percent deficient bridges, was the worst. Nevada was the best (2.2 percent).

Maine’s poor showing does not come as a surprise to many in the transportation industry. Maria Fuentes of the Maine Better Transportation Association said that lack of funding is the core issue. Maine used to spend 26 percent of state revenues on highway and bridges. Today, the state spends just 10 percent. She said you only have to look at two high profile bridge projects struggling for funding to understand the impact of that neglect.

“It’s ironic that we have failing bridges at both ends of our state – in Fort Kent and in Kittery. Maine only has to pay for half of those bridges and we still are having problems coming up with the money,” said Fuentes. New Brunswick and New Hampshire, respectively, have pledged funding for the projects that connect Maine to its closest neighbors. In addition, the federal government has committed $20 million in economic recovery funds to the Memorial Bridge replacement.

“The strategic role these bridges play highlights how critical good roads and bridges are to our economy. If one has to close down because it is not safe, that is a major blow to the state and local economy,” said Fuentes.

Concerns about funding for Maine’s bridge program are nothing new.

Gov. John Baldacci’s 2008 bond package was worth $160 million over four years in TransCap funding to help address the state’s backlog of deficient bridges.

With that money about to run out, it’s time for another transportation bond for bridges. The bond could also help Maine companies that specialize in longer lasting, durable, non corrosive composite bridges – as the previous bond package did. Composite Bridge-in-a -Backpack technology and composite beam technology developed at UMaine was used in ten percent of the bridges from that bond package- spurring business growth.

“The TransCap was program good, but it was just a four-year program. The problem is much bigger than that. We need to be thinking longer term,” said Fuentes, whose organization supports alternative funding methods, including general obligation or GARVEE bonds (grant anticipation revenue vehicles) for capital projects, including major bridges, that have a life span of 80 years or more.

Fuentes says that borrowing can make sense when you are investing in long-term infrastructure projects and will help support the state’s long-term economic vitality and avoid deferring costs of bad roads and bridges to Maine citizens in the form of increased operating and maintenance costs.

“The average Mainer already spends $250 in extra vehicle maintenance costs due to bad roads and bridges,” said Fuentes. “The truth is, every time we post or close a bridge, Maine drivers pay even more in increased fuel costs and emergency response times.”