TREMONT — Town Manager Chris Saunders has learned a lot about roads in the last year and a half as the town’s road commissioner.
“It is challenging because I feel like Tremont gets a lot of grief,” he said; he often hears people say the town has the worst roads on the island.
“This little town of 1,600 people, the smallest town on the island, in many ways has the most state [aid] road to [maintain] on the island,” he said. “Southwest Harbor is state road all the way through.”
It is true that Tremont has the smallest amount of state highway of the four island towns — less than one-fifth of a mile.
Southwest Harbor has about 4.5 miles of state highway, Mount Desert has 11.7 miles and Bar Harbor has almost 14. State highways are maintained year round by the Maine Department of Transportation.
On the other hand, Tremont has a lot of state aid highways, which are maintained by the state in the summer months and the town in the winter months. Bar Harbor has 11.16 miles of state aid highway and Tremont has 10.89 miles.
Plow trucks cost well over $100,000 when brand new, Saunders said. Tremont has two of these trucks; they were purchased in 2013 and their lifespan is six to seven years.
“They get beaten up,” said Saunders. “These roads are not nice to these trucks. You have trucks that are really working hard out there … and drivers.”
The summer maintenance is the state’s responsibility, but the Board of Selectmen expressed concern that some of the work might need to be done sooner than the MDOT could get to it.
So in March, selectmen unanimously approved Saunders signing a cooperative agreement with the state for the town to do work on state aid roads and be reimbursed by the state, as long as the work had been pre-approved by MDOT.
In August 2018, Saunders presented a capital improvement schedule for four of what were considered the worst roads in town. In the schedule there were photos of road conditions and details such as length of the roads that needed repair, estimated number of potholes, the number of residents served by each road, an estimated cost for a ‘mill and fill’ resurfacing and an estimated cost for a full reconstruction.
Saunders said he has driven every one of the town roads and taken notes on their condition.
“I believe that there are a few really bad roads in town,” he said, “specifically Hodgdon Road, Dix Point Road [and] Dodge Point Road. They were built a long time ago. They’ve been getting some maintenance. They’re just old roads and roads have to be rebuilt after a certain period of time.”
Cape Road was also included in that proposed schedule. Members of the public works department, using a rented excavator and town equipment, dug out ditches and cleared brush on Cape Road this summer.
It isn’t just the road that needs to be fixed in most cases. Ditches, trees, tree limbs and culverts are also part of the process and all of it can be pretty expensive.
The town’s budget includes a Road Improvement Program, which is a reserve account that gets funds added to it each year. Those funds have typically been in amounts between $25,000 and $50,000, according to Saunders.
With the amount of work that needs to be done on the town’s roads, installments of that size means road improvement will be a slow process.
At its meeting this week, the Board of Selectmen approved moving $125,000 from the budget for the year that ended in June into this account, once the town’s audit is complete.
There was $25,000 in that reserve account in this year’s budget and the town has spent $29,122 already this year on road repairs, which puts the account $4,100 in debt.
“We’ve spent almost all of it just on the projects — excavator rental, the culvert purchases, all that stuff for Cape Road and the work that the crew did this year,” Saunders said
“My big goal in [the coming fiscal year] is to find enough money for a full road reconstruction,” he added.
A 2017 estimate to rebuild Dodge Point Road came in at $263,000.
Nearly three years later Saunders estimates that cost has likely risen to at least $300,000.
With the amount approved by selectmen on Tuesday and the addition of $100,000 from a loan that was recently paid off, Saunders is close.
“Now, I just need to find [another] $75,000,” he said, to fund the project.
“From a fiduciary responsibility perspective, I want a road that I believe will last 50 years.”