WATERVILLE — Kevin York has seen the damaging effects of city roads.

In the past month, four or five cars have pulled into Midas for wheel repairs after striking potholes, the assistant manager said. And he hears a lot of complaints about roads from customers.

The worst roads are Eustis Parkway and, particularly, North Street.

“That road is nasty,” he said.

City officials are familiar with motorists’ concerns. Public Works Director Mark Turner sometimes encounters upset residents during his free time.

“We usually avoid public places,” Turner joked. “In other words, I don’t go to the gym, because I don’t want to listen to it. Even at hockey games when my son is playing, I hear it.”

City Manager Mike Roy agreed.

“We hear it all the time,” he said.

Roy said some of the public’s criticisms result from misunderstanding or misconceptions, and he can often defuse critiques through conversation.

“If you tell them we have 354 roads, most people don’t know that,” he said. “And most people would not know about the joint state-city responsibility. Most people would think the roads are entirely the city’s responsibility, but in fact some of the roads are not our total responsibility.”

State and local roads

Perhaps nothing evokes images of a town better than the words Main Street.

In Waterville, however, Main Street — the roadway, anyway — is the responsibility of the state, not the city.

Roy said there are three categories of roads in the city: local, which are the sole responsibility of the city; state highways, which are the sole responsibility of the state; and state-aid roads, which are the responsibility of both city and state.

In Waterville, 36 of its 354 roads are designated as state highways or state-aid roads, which comprise nearly 30 percent of the total linear mileage.

That relatively small percentage can have a big impact on public perception, Turner said.

“I think you’ll find that most of the bad roads are state roads,” he said. “Main Street is a state road. College Avenue is a state road.”

State-aid roads also draw ire, Roy said.

“The state-aid roads have always been the worst roads in the city,” he said.

Those include Eustis Parkway and North Street. The responsibility for those roads is often murky. And that murkiness can lead to inaction.

“On state-aid roads, we’re responsible for maintenance and general repair. The state is responsible for big capital improvements to state-aid roads,” he said. “So then the fight always becomes, ‘What constitutes a major improvement?’ Is it an overlay? Or is that more of a maintenance responsibility of the community?

“I think what happened over time is the state was saying, ‘Overlays and pavement upgrades are a maintenance thing. That’s not a capital improvement.’ And the towns were saying, ‘Hey, pavement overlays cost a lot of money. That’s a capital thing and a state responsibility.’ So, a lot of roads weren’t getting done.”

Local roads

Roadwork is surprisingly expensive, according to Assistant City Engineer John Lombardi.

One of the most common repair projects is shim and overlay. When shimming, road crews fill wheel ruts to create a solid base for an overlay of new pavement.

The approximate cost for a shim and overlay on a 24-foot-wide road is $80,000 per mile, he said.

Roy said that for the past two years, the city’s annual allocation for roadwork has been $250,000.

“When people see that number about shim and overlay, they realize how far $250,000 goes,” he said. “Not very far.”

The city’s allocation goes much farther today than in years past, though. A decade ago, there was no funding, Roy said.

“The city was relying on borrowing — bond issues — to pay for a lot of the roadwork. I think when I came here seven years ago, there was not a regular line item in our annual budget for road repairs, and I insisted that there had to be something.

“You can borrow money to rebuild roads, because you’re building something that’s going to last the life of the bond. But to put pavement out as a surface treatment and borrow money over 20 years for that, the surface treatment is long gone before you’ve finished paying for it.”

After Roy’s arrival, the city approved $200,000 a year for roadwork. In 2010, the annual figure rose to $250,000.

It’s still not enough, Roy said.

“Really, an argument could be made that it should be more like $400,000,” Roy said.

“But, we’ve done a pretty good job, I think, on the local side. The real problem areas have been those roads that are state-aid roads within the city, and the state never having enough funds to come in and work on the state-aid roads. So, we’re finally to the point of realizing that if something is going to get done, the only way it’s going to get done on state-aid is for us to partner with the state.”

Partnering with the state

Dale Doughty, director of the bureau of maintenance and operations for Maine Department of Transportation, acknowledges that state-aid roads sometimes get “orphaned.”

“You can imagine our state priorities are interstates first, and then we go down in classification from there, right down to arterials, major collectors and minor collectors,” he said. “A city’s priorities are going to put minor collectors on the top of their list.

“Those roads get stuck between our priority process and their priority process.”

Doughty said the Municipal Partnership Initiative might help.

It is a “method to develop, fund and build projects of municipal interest … with DOT as a partner,” according to the transportation department website.

The program began on July 1. It provides $7 million in funding for the 2012-2013 budget cycle. Cities can receive 100 percent matching funds from the pool for state-aid road projects and others.

Last summer, the partnership helped fund repair projects on Water and Grove streets.

Roy said the program helps get projects moving on state-aid roads. This summer, the partnership will fund additional repairs to Water Street, and may also fund work on Chaplin Street and Colby Circle.

“It’s when each party is saying, ‘Yep, we’ve got some responsibility, so we’re going to contribute some money if you do, too.'”

The partnership was partly inspired by a 2008 project on Mayflower Hill when the city, state and Colby College all pitched in to get the work done, Roy said.

“I approached Colby and said, ‘If you want to wait for the state to fix it, it could be a very, very, very long time. Are you interested in doing something sooner?'” Roy recalled.

Colby agreed and Roy approached the state.

“I said, ‘We could argue that the whole thing is your responsibility, but we’re willing to pay for two-thirds of it. So, now you only have one-third of it.’ (The state) bought into that,” Roy said.

The transportation department took notice of the project, tried similar pilot projects elsewhere and developed the partnership program.

Asked if it’s unfair for cities to ante up for projects the state is responsible for, Roy said no.

“Certainly that resentment is there in some areas. People say, ‘It’s always been a state responsibility to do the majority of the work, and now this MPI thing is a way for the state to get out from under their burden.’

“I’d rather just focus on the positive part of it, that things are finally getting done. True, it’s going to cost the communities more, but what people care about are results. I mean, they care about the tax bill, too, but if they can see results in the community — roads being fixed, things being repaired — that’s a very tangible thing they can point to in terms of what they pay for.”

Marty Rooney, transportation planning division director for transportation department, agrees the program is fair.

“It’s voluntary from a municipal perspective,” Rooney said. “The state still acknowledges we’re responsible for the roads. The MPI is a way for a municipality to get improvements made sooner. The fact that it’s completely voluntary speaks to a certain fairness.”

Upcoming projects

Lombardi said there are several projects planned for 2012. The state will fund a $200,000 project on Eustis Parkway, and the city will continue work on Water Street through the partnership. Eight other roads are being eyed for potential projects.

Aside from the partnership funds, Roy said the city can withdraw funds from the 2005 Downtown Tax Increment Financing District for downtown road projects. The city may also attach some road funding to the proposed construction of a new police station.

“Hopefully the city will commence a project to build that, and when we do borrow, we’re going to propose adding $1 million to the borrowing for major road repair, reconstruct-, reclaim-type projects,” he said.

The status of a state-funded project to re-engineer the five-way intersection at First Rangeway and Chase and Western avenues is unclear, Turner said.

“There’s been a delay,” he said. “It was approved for funding two or three years ago. We have to obtain some easements to construct a road across a property owned by Mount Merici (Convent and Academy).

He said there have been several accidents there “so it’s been a safety concern.”

Overall, Turner said the city’s roads are in fair shape, all things considered.

“If I compare the roads to other communities, I’d say we’re as good or better than most, on a local level,” he said. “If you factor in the state roads — again, it’s a statewide issue — typically those are the worst ones because they get the most traffic.

“So, I would say ours are probably average. Not as good as we’d like them to be, but we’ve been able to keep them to a reasonable level of quality.”

Ben McCanna — 861-9239

[email protected]