A new, three-year statewide transportation work plan includes familiar funding for bridges and roads, but officials hope the recently passed federal infrastructure package will present opportunities for new approaches to downtown streets.

Maine’s nearly $3.2 billion transportation plan, released Tuesday, presents no significantly different proposals than those that came before. Maintaining and replacing bridges and paving roads remain the state’s top transportation priorities.

“Highways are the backbone – you can’t forget it because it serves most of our customers,” state Transportation Commissioner Bruce Van Note said in an interview.

Over three years, 57 percent of the state’s transportation funding will go to roads and bridges. Top spending categories include $631 million for bridges, $462 million for road repaving and $237 million for highway safety and spot improvements.

Notable construction projects include replacement of the Ticonic Bridge, between Waterville and Winslow, and the Frank J. Woods Bridge, between Brunswick and Topsham.

Roughly $424 million is planned for multimodal spending that includes new investments in airports, ports, public transit and freight rail. That category includes proposals for a new ferry for the Casco Bay islands and an expansion of the International Marine Terminal in Portland to allow larger vessels to berth there.

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Just about $30 million is slated for active transportation – including walking trails, sidewalks and bicycle lanes – less than 1 percent of the total. That funding includes a 1.4-mile path to close a gap in the Eastern Trail between Scarborough and South Portland.

While there may not be much new in the three-year plan, Van Note said the department wants funding for projects that make small downtowns across the state safer and more attractive to people on foot.

‘VILLAGE PARTNERSHIP INITIATIVE’

Those projects, under the title “Village Partnership Initiative,” could range from small safety improvements to large-scale road rebuilding. The aim, however, is the same: to slow traffic and make it easier to meet, shop and do business without a car. Recent examples include main throughways in Hallowell, Bridgton, Naples and Belgrade.

“Simply put, the goal of the Village Partnership Initiative is to make sure once you get there, the ‘there’ is a place you want to be,” the department wrote in its plan.

Designing those improvements is expensive and demands the support of residents and local officials, Van Note said.

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“In terms of what you see in construction in 2022, it may not be dramatically different,” but the process is going on behind the scenes, he said.

Those village projects will rely on Maine winning competitive federal grants included in the bipartisan infrastructure measure passed last November.

The trillion-dollar package includes about $2.37 billion over five years in direct funding for Maine to repair and rebuild battered infrastructure in the state, according to an estimate by the White House in August.

The infrastructure package gives Maine about $66 million more a year than it otherwise would have received for roads and bridges over the next five years.

“That is akin to a cost-of-living adjustment increase in your paycheck,” Van Note said. “It is significant but not a game-changer considering construction inflation.”

Billions of dollars available in a suite of new grant programs could make significant differences in some local and state projects, Van Note added.

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Despite funding from the federal measure, the Maine Department of Transportation will likely need more funding in the coming years for its highway plans. Maine voters regularly approve borrowing for transportation spending, authorizing another $100 million bond in November. That came on top of more than $100 million lawmakers allocated last year to highways from the state budget.

UNCERTAINTY MAKES ESTIMATING DIFFICULT

The state’s highway budget is underfunded by at least $200 million – and high construction costs in recent years have made the shortfall worse. In the past three years, construction costs have increased 30 to 40 percent. Since 2020, public officials in Maine have scaled back or canceled projects for schools, municipal buildings, roads and other infrastructure because contractors’ prices were so far above budget.

Transportation officials have tried to produce estimates that capture escalating costs, Van Note said. Uncertainty in the labor market and supply chains make it impossible to say for sure what to expect.

“What is going to happen with supply chain and construction costs? (Are they) going to plateau, get higher, (or) moderate? We honestly don’t know,” Van Note said. “I don’t think we have our hands fully around it, but I bet no one has their hands around it better.”


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