Maintenance of our road system is one of the primary public goods provided by our state and local governments. It’s also a classic example of a service that’s more expensive and time-consuming the more rural and remote the area.
For some services, like electricity, rural and island communities are protected from having to pay higher rates to cover the higher costs incurred in getting service to them and maintaining it. That’s less true for roads — a town’s location vis a vis major highways and travel routes is a major factor in how much help it can expect from the state in maintaining its roads.
The state highway system organizes the roads into three categories to determine maintenance responsibility. A road is categorized based on traffic counts, length of trips, land use along the route and its position in the road network.
State highways “form a system of connected routes throughout the state that primarily serve intra- and interstate traffic,” an explainer for towns from the Maine Department of Transportation (DOT) says. State-aid highways, “used for intracounty rather than intrastate traffic,” are an in-between designation. They’re supposed to be plowed by the town in the winter and maintained by the state in the summer. All the rest are town ways.
Bar Harbor has 14 miles of state highway, 11 miles of state-aid highway and 50 miles of town ways. Mount Desert has 12 miles of state highway, 10 miles state-aid and 31 miles of town ways.
Tremont has a few more miles of roads than Southwest Harbor and a few fewer residents. But it has nearly no state highways, only 0.19 miles’ worth, compared with 4.5 in Southwest. Tremont instead has 11 miles of state-aid roads, more than double the 5 miles in Southwest and comparable to the length of state-aid roads in the bigger towns.
It’s a pain being at the end of the line. Especially when the DOT’s worklist and expenses continue to grow far faster than funding available. Maine’s annual highway maintenance budget is over $390 million. According to the Office of Fiscal and Program review, that’s $350 million less than what’s needed to complete all the needed work.
Certainly some rethinking will need to be done in Augusta to figure out how to fund that work. But meanwhile, back at home, what can be done? Tremont is going to try an option sometimes used for unbridged islands: have contractors or town crew do some of the maintenance work that’s normally DOT’s job, and ask for reimbursement.
Perhaps road work is also an area were increased collaboration between the towns could improve efficiency. Could the towns work out interlocal agreements to share or borrow employees, equipment, materials or storage space? Maintaining our public roads will continue to be an uphill struggle, but cooperation and flexibility may help stretch our limited resources just a bit further.