Keeping the wheels turning
It was back in 1913 that the three-member Maine State Highway Commission was first created by the Maine State Legislature. With just 12 employees to its name – including a chief engineer, five assistant engineers and four stenographers – it was the Commission’s job to build a system of connected main highways throughout the state. Move forward to 1972, and the Maine Department of Transportation (MaineDOT) would come to be established by said Legislature, retaining the Maine State Highway Commission’s responsibilities for highways and bridges, but also assuming those for air, rail, public transportation, ports and marine transportation, including operation of the Maine State Ferry Service.
With its three primary goals being to manage the existing system, support economic opportunity and quality of life, and build trust, MaineDOT today employs nearly 1800 people, and expends or disburses more than $675 million per year, including federal, state, and local funds. “Our mission at MaineDOT is to provide our customers with the safest and most reliable transportation system possible, given available resources,” begins Rich Crawford, Director of the Bureau of Project Development. “Given the climate we have as a north-eastern state, arguably our most important service is the maintaining of the existing roads and highways, which is particularly critical during what can be rather drawn out winter seasons. We support this during the summer months by commissioning capital upgrade and maintenance works in order to keep the system in satisfactory and serviceable condition all year round.”
Another core function of MaineDOT is to ensure that the right investments are made with the funding it is provided, so as to support economic opportunities and the quality of life enjoyed by the residents of the state. This has become all the more important – and indeed complex – since the emergence of Covid-19, which had a near immediate impact on all transportation networks, with commuter numbers falling overnight.
“As we had predicted, the pandemic did indeed have a negative effect on traffic numbers, and subsequently on revenues, especially in those early months of spring 2020,” Rich confirms. “However, unlike a number of other businesses that either reduced or shut down their operations during this time, we actually took the opportunity to utilize some bond funding that we had received to add additional projects to our work plan to the value of approximately $33 million. Lower traffic volumes allowed these projects to be conducted in a safe manner, and this in turn helped to keep contractors working and to lessen the impact of the fiscal blow brought by Covid-19.
“A subsequent survey by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) found that Maine experienced 4.6 per cent growth in construction jobs during the pandemic, making it the fifth highest performer in the country. We believe this shows that our efforts to accelerate the use of funding to get more work completed really paid off. Add to this the fact that this work was done at a time when working remotely and social distancing had a big impact on the way we operate, and yet we still delivered an all-time record of 94 per cent on time completion, and you can see why we are very proud of our efforts.”
One of the largest projects to be carried out during the last 12 months in Maine was its work on Interstate 295 (i295) through Portland. “Here, we worked with one of our contractors, CPM Constructors, and used some of our bridge maintenance forces to set about carrying out extension, repairs and maintenance works,” Rich details. “Again, due to lower traffic volumes, much of this was able to be undertaken during daylight hours, which we found to be not only safer, but much more cost effective, with a saving made on this project of somewhere between $2 million and $3 million.”
Other projects undertaken in the past year include paving works on Interstate 495, a $19 million highway reconstruction and bridge replacement project that is taking place on Route 4 in the state’s Western mountains, and ongoing rehabilitation work on the Piscataqua River Bridge, located at the Southern tip of the state. A further project of note is the Hampden Bridge Bundle Project. This major task, for which MaineDOT has contracted Cianbro, involved the rebuilding of eight bridges – and the rehabilitation of another – along a four-mile stretch of Interstate 95 in Hampden, at a cost of approximately $45 million. “Some of the existing bridges here are almost 60 years old and coming towards the end of their lives, so it is a project of some considerable scale that we are talking about,” Rich reveals. “As they are all interstate bridges, it means we can apply the same works to each, which reduces engineering costs at the front end, and we also bundle them into one contract package, which again will result in economic savings due to economy of scale.”
Returning back to MaineDOT’s goals, one is its supporting of economic opportunities within the state, and to this end it estimates that in the 12 months prior to our conversation in March 2021 it has actioned over $340 million worth of works, providing jobs for over 4400 people. “On a daily basis, we task ourselves with wisely identifying key areas of investment, so as to deliver a good fully-functioning transportation system for the state of Maine, because we feel that such a system is the very backbone of one’s economic growth and prosperity, one’s safety and one’s quality of life,” Rich states. “This goes for our highways, our railroads and our ports, which – being the closest of their kind in the US to both Europe and Africa – are hugely important connection points for businesses not only across our state, but the whole country also.
“Moving forward,” Rich continues, “one of the things we want to do is develop our understanding and use of new technologies that are shaping – and will shape – the future of our operations and of transportation as a whole. This will range from increased use of 3D modelling for construction and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for surveying, right through to the infrastructure needed for autonomous connected vehicles. In this particular case, we have recently opened up a contract to begin upgrading various traffic systems around our state capital, which will allow them to connect in real time to our traffic management centre. This will flag up any problems with a specific signal which impacts the flow of traffic instantly, allowing us to troubleshoot the issue immediately, minimizing the impact on commuters. It is developments like this that have us all at MaineDOT very excited for what the future holds.”
Maine Department of Transportation (MaineDOT)
Services: State agency responsible for transportation in Maine