AUGUSTA — The state Department of Transportation has ambitious plans to consolidate much of its fleet maintenance operations on a single site in northwest Augusta.

The project — which has a $10.5 million budget almost fully funded — hinges on a proposal to rezone to planned development part of 19 Meadow Brook Road adjacent to a lot on Industrial Drive. The city Planning Board will take up the matter at 7 p.m. Tuesday at City Center and send a recommendation to City Council.

If the zoning is changed, then the state will finalize a $1.8 million deal to buy 66 Industrial Drive, a 57,000 square-foot warehouse plus 4,500 square feet of office space built in 1990 for Allen’s Transfer and Storage, a trucking company.

The property, off Leighton Road near the intersection of Civic Center Drive, has been vacant for several years, and over the years has been vandalized and flooded when a pressurized sewer system backed up.

The land is adjacent to a 55-acre Meadow Brook Road property that the state bought for $200,000 several months ago. The state hopes some 40 of those acres can be rezoned from rural river to planned development. The remaining land and residence would then be put up for sale.

Don Hutchins, fleet manager for the Department of Transportation, looks at 66 Industrial Drive and sees beyond the leaning cyclone fence and tall weeds to a building that could help improve the way the mechanics and fabricators do their work on the tall vehicles that just don’t fit under a thick concrete header in the current building on Capitol Street.

“I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to move everything before you can do your work,” he said.

“It’s not a good setup, we’ve outgrown it,” Hutchins said. He pointed later to one area where the top of the truck barely clears an overhead crane system and said the lot itself is a tight turn for drivers of 52-foot-long tractor-trailers who need to off-load steel for use in fabrication. There are numerous procedures to following for preparing vehicles to enter and leave the building before maintenance can even begin.

“We have extremely good people and they are very, very crafty. We’ve become as efficient as we can here,” Hutchins said. “Now the facility is the next big thing. If you want to get more efficient, you have to get something different.”

In fact, plans are to sell the nine-acre site on Capitol Street, a few blocks west of the State House between Florence and Sewall streets.

State officials “have been very considerate in approaching us to get our input administratively and giving us an early heads up to what they’ve been contemplating,” said City Manager William Bridgeo Thursday.

“There have been discussions about moving the department’s maintenance complex from that prime location to somewhere else,” he added, saying that several master plans for the city’s future include that as well.

Bridgeo also said any Planning Board recommendation for a zoning change would need to go before the City Council and then to a public hearing as well.

At best, getting a zoning change is generally a several-month process.

The sprawling 35,000-square-foot State Highway Commission green garage building was built in 1920 and included a bullpen, which actually housed the bulls or oxe, which pulled heavy rollers to smooth out dirt roads for sleighs. Today the concrete-floored bullpen area is the tallest garage bay.

“It’s not a great place to fix a grader,” said Dale Doughty, director of the department’s Bureau of Maintenance & Operations. Some 65 people work at the site.

Doughty said the department has been seeking a different location for its heavy equipment maintenance garage but didn’t want to spend an estimated $15 million to 20 million to build a modern facility.

The former home of Associated Grocers in Gardiner was considered one option, but was sold.

Doughty said the Industrial Drive site is a good space and has room for expansion. “We can consolidate our heavy fleet facility plus Central Fleet Management and State Surplus, which handles resale of vehicles,” Doughty said.

Doughty listed other offices that would be consolidated there:

• The Region 2 (Midcoast) offices currently in the Central Maine Commerce Center, saving $240,000 a year in rent.

• The Office of Information Technologies radio installation and repair shop, renting space in the former Ascona Fitness building on Leighton Road.

He also said the paint warehouse on Leighton Road might come in later as well as the department’s bridge inspection equipment now in Skowhegan. Doughty said other agencies might want to share space with transportation as part of the government consolidation move.

Consolidation of just the fleet services, Doughty said, would eliminate redundancies among fleet services, including sand blast booths and paint booths and wash areas.

“The huge open floor plan gives us the ability to make things much more efficient,” he said. “The concept in this building whether it’s a sedan or a dump truck, it would come in one door and go out the other end with everything installed.” Doughty likened that to the moving assembly line pioneered by Henry Ford.

At the end of the vehicle’s service life, it would be stripped of the specialty radios and other gear and auctioned from there.

“We want to be able to do cradle to grave on a piece of equipment,” Hutchins said.

Doughty said the department estimates annual savings of $1.4 million by eliminating redundancies and gaining efficiencies. “That’s less than a 10-year payoff.”

The project is funded through savings on personnel and equipment purchase delays with between $200,000 and $1.7 million yet uncovered.

According to the department’s proposal, both the Capitol Street and Leighton Road properties would be sold and the funds used for the current and future phases of the project.

Betty Adams — 621-5631
badams@centralmaine.com