Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, March 13, 2014
Stonington selectmen seek united front to push for better roads
by Rich Hewitt
There’s a new road sign at the top of the hill on Route 15 heading out of town that reads “Rough Road.”
Local motorists have been complaining about the conditions on Route 15 and 15A since the first frost heave appeared months ago. And the roads have continued to deteriorate to the point where motorists now have to slow down and drive around the ruts and the frost heaves.
Now, it seems, the Maine Department of Transportation, which installed the sign, has taken notice.
The real question, however, is: what are they going to do about it?
That was the question Town Manager Kathleen Billings-Pezaris raised with Steve Thebarge, the MDOT regional manager, while he was on the island this week.
“I just wanted to see where we were on their radar,” she told selectmen on Monday. “I guess we’re not very high up.”
Billings-Pezaris noted that the department is locked into its two-year plan and it’s difficult to get them to move outside of that plan. She told selectmen this week that the town needs to make the MDOT understand that the road needs work and it needs it now.
“There’s no question we need to be in the next two-year plan for significant work. That road bed is just going to give up,” she said. “I don’t know if it will make it next winter. There’s no sense in putting a 5/8-inch layer of skim coat on it.”
Billings-Pezaris said she’d asked if there might be funds the state could allocate to the town so town crews could do some improvement work. She said the town could make better use of the funds and could do work—such as installing a culvert—more quickly and at much less cost than the state.
That idea has been raised before and she said she was surprised Thebarge had hinted that there might be some funds available to the town for mowing and cutting brush.
That was something, but it’s unlikely that cutting brush will resolve the road problems.
“A lot of the problem is ditching,” said Selectman Chris Betts. “You’ve got to get rid of the water.”
The road is literally the town’s life line, being the only way on and off the island, and the selectmen agreed that the town needs to take some action to really call the state’s attention to the entire Route 15 corridor from Stonington right through to Orland where it meets Route 1.
The problem with the road, said Selectman Evelyn Duncan, is the amount of traffic it gets. Bait, fuel, salt, stone, wood and about 14 million pounds of lobster all travel that route.
“There’s just so many big, heavy trucks, and each one is the equivalent of 2,000 cars,” Duncan said. “Every time one of those truck goes out of town it’s just like 2,000 cars drove up there.”
Billings-Pezaris noted that each of those trucks is paying the fuel tax that goes to state coffers for road work.
“We should be able to tap into some of that money,” she said.
The town is the No. 1 lobster port in the state and Betts said that ought to count for something. And Selectman Dick Larrabee added that some of the bait companies were reluctant to send their trucks to town because of the wear and tear on them. The poor condition of the road could have a negative economic impact on the town and its top industry.
“This is not just a question of people being upset about the roads,” said Selectman Ben Barrows. “This is a serious business issue for this town.”
Betts suggested that inciting the local residents themselves might have an impact.
“Get the citizens to do it,” he said. “Get a thousand people to call up and complain—the squeaky wheel.”
A petition drive, calls and letters might help to put pressure on the department as would efforts through State Rep. Walter Kumiega. The only cautionary note came from Larrabee who warned of putting too much pressure on the state.
“If you piss them off, you’ll get nothing,” he said.
But Larrabee also suggested that there is strength in numbers.
“If we’re going to squawk, we might be able to get Deer Isle on line,” he suggested. “It might be a good idea if this went out as an island.”
Billings-Pezaris said they might even look off-island for support, noting that Route 15 through Sedgwick and Blue Hill, Penobscot and Orland was a mess. She said she would contact officials from those towns to see if they would be willing to join in an effort to push for improvements on that road.
In a related matter, Billings-Pezaris said she had driven out the Oceanville Road this week and noted that there were large areas that needed work. The town will have to focus some “heavy duty” work on that road this year, she said.